Community College of Philadelphia's graduation Saturday was filled with success stories — triumphs over hardship that led to the dark blue regalia and a diploma.
For one of the 2,258 students, class speaker Christopher Thomas, 37, of Germantown, the journey nearly ended with his dropping out. But a scholarship at a particularly low moment turned him around.
"I was thinking about quitting to address some things that were going on in my personal life," Thomas said before the ceremony. The $2,000 scholarship "helped me to decide that I would not leave, and that I would stay and get my degree, no matter what."
By the time he strolled across the stage at the Liacouras Center in his "crowning moment," he had attained A's in 20 of his 21 classes for a 3.91 grade-point average and highest honors. He became a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, secured an acceptance to the University of Pennsylvania, and now strives to teach history at "underserved" schools in the city.
Thomas applied to the Community College of Philadelphia in 2009 after dropping out of Temple University 16 years earlier. After two semesters, he had earned a 3.75 GPA despite challenges outside the classroom.
Even with that accomplishment, Thomas thought about leaving until he received the scholarship.
In his third semester, Thomas's newfound enthusiasm for education was tested when his then-16-year-old daughter, Deanna, came to live with him. He was living with his grandmother and was determined to save enough money to get an apartment for his daughter and himself. The educational drive transferred to his work life.
He began working extra shifts, always keeping up with his schoolwork. Thomas not only earned enough for the apartment, he won a host of scholarships, including the Foundation Scholars Award, for his impressive academic achievements.
Thomas also began helping with fund-raisers to continue the types of scholarships that helped keep him in school.
"It really added something to me as a person," Thomas said. "It's not always about money; it's about giving anything that you can."
Thomas also began telling his story in hopes of inspiring others. He did so again Saturday in front of the packed arena after being chosen as the student commencement speaker. His speech focused on the Community College of Philadelphia's mantra: "The path to possibilities."
"Being in an environment that was conducive to the maturing of positive character and behavior has been one of the most transformative occurrences in my life," Thomas said. "This has led to the discovery and rediscovery of passions, talents and motivations, as well as a renewed sense of dedication inside and outside the classroom. So when it comes to the 'path to possibilities,' we must all find our own way to our own path."
Richard Downs, a member of the college's first graduating class in 1967, also shared his story with graduates.
Downs, who is retired and most recently worked as vice chairman of American Foodservice Corp., was rejected by Temple, Drexel University, and Pennsylvania State University before he found a school. He went on to earn a bachelor of science degree from Drexel and a master's in business administration from Temple but still volunteers at and donates to his initial alma mater.
"No one accepted me until I walked down 11th and Chestnut and saw a banner: 'Community College Opening Now.' I walked under that banner, and my life changed forever," he said. "I've been able to help a lot of people as a result of the Community College of Philadelphia."
Thomas and Downs agreed that they would not be where they were without the Community College of Philadelphia.
While Downs continues helping the college prosper and helping new students further their education, Thomas has turned his sights on younger students. He wants to teach American history because he says the city's students learn too little about the country's past. While he says he would eventually like to teach at Central High School, which he attended, he wants to begin at underprivileged schools in the city first.
Thomas ended with a quotation from that never-give-up character, Rocky Balboa — to a loud ovation.
"Life is a fight," he said. "And in this fight, it don't matter how hard you hit. What matters is how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward."