Rain holds off for RCCC’s drive-thru graduation at speedway

Published 12:02 am Friday, May 13, 2022

By Elisabeth Strillacci


CONCORD — More than 400 cars stretched around the curves and straightaways of Charlotte Motor Speedway, but it wasn’t a race. In each car was a new graduate of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, heading to pick up their diploma.

For the third year in a row, the college chose to offer students the opportunity to participate in a drive-thru ceremony to offset potential risks from COVID. This year, more than 1,000 students qualified for graduation, and Sarah Devlin, director of governance, advancement and community relations for the school, said that more than 400 had signed up to participate. Each student was allowed one car, but they could choose anyone they wished to ride along. And escorts included everyone from parents to children to siblings, some even hanging out windows to capture video.

As each car approached, RCCC President Dr. Carol Spalding leaned in to hand off diploma and offer good wishes and congratulations. A cameraman stood over her shoulder filming, and across the stadium, that live feed appeared on a massive screen. One young man made sure his mother knew he was making history.

“Look, mama, I’m on TV,” he crowed as his mother thanked Spalding for her diploma. Spalding noted that although the college will likely return to the traditional indoor graduation ceremony soon, she knows that there are things about the drive-thru that have been embraced by students, and her hope is to incorporate the best moments of today’s event into a return to tradition.

Devlin said while most, if not all, students live within driving distance of the college, since there is no housing provided, they do not all come from the same place in life. “Our students are all ages, all backgrounds,” she said. “Some are changing careers, some are looking for an affordable education, some will be transfer students, some are looking for certifications that they can immediately take into the work force, but they are all trying to improve their lives. And every one of them has a story.”

Jasmine Rosenberry was in the first car that would lead the procession. As president of the Student Government Association for the past year and class speaker, Rosenberry’s path to graduation was not a simple one, but the smile on her face doesn’t betray the challenges. With sometimes intense family struggles, she was also diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at 17. She graduated from Mt. Pleasant High School then enrolled at RCCC, the first member of her family to attend college. She was introduced to student life and began to find her voice. Her future plans are getting a bachelor’s degree in library science then heading to UNCG for a master’s that will allow her to become a librarian.

“Be proud of yourself,” was the direct advice she offered her fellow students. “And people should not underestimate the value of a community college education. It can be every bit as rewarding and fulfilling as a four-year college, and can make a college education affordable when it otherwise might not be.

Thaisala Eubanks became a new mother at 17. Over the next few years, she grew her family and took a job involving manual labor. Life rocked along. Until she suffered two work-related injuries.

“I decided it was time to get a job using my brain instead of my body to make money,” she said, smiling. She enrolled at RCCC to study criminal justice, and now, with her degree in hand, she will move on to North Carolina Central University for a bachelor’s degree in the same subject, and already has a job lined up in juvenile justice.

Jerry Leonard was chauffeured by his son, Mason, who graduated from high school two years ago. Jerry Leonard was picking up his second degree at RCCC. He received his first in 2005 in industrial systems technology, which he put to use in his job with Salisbury Rowan Utilities. Thursday he got his second degree in electrical systems technology.

He chose RCCC because “it’s close to home,” and noted graduation day “is a big relief.”

“I’m just so proud of my dad,” said Mason, grinning.

Leonidas Lazo came to the United States from El Salvador at 18, determined to make a success of his life. He got a full-time job with a large construction company and enrolled at RCCC, another student who is the first in his family to attend college. When he got to his first class, he realized his limited English would be no match for keeping up in class, so he began recording every class on his phone, then going home each night and translating it into Spanish so he could study. He worked on his English at the same time, eventually becoming fluent enough to handle the classes without translation. Thursday, he graduated with a degree in construction management technology.

“When I think of my accomplishments, I think of the teachers and staff at Rowan-Cabarrus who have supported me,” Lazo said. “My achievements are not just due to my efforts, but also the encouragement they provided along the way. Rowan-Cabarrus has helped replace my insecurities and fears with hope. My goal is to become a successful construction project manager and be a good example to others, showing them that with time and effort, anything is possible.”

Some students whose lives have been changed by RCCC were not among today’s graduates, but among staff. Barb Meidl, director of student life and leadership, said she went from a stint with homelessness and an abusive relationship to classes at RCCC where she was introduced to work-study. After graduation, she stayed on with the college, moving her way up bit by bit, always invested in the students coming behind her.

“She bleeds Navigation Nation blue,” said Devlin.

“It really did change the entire trajectory of my life,” said Meidl. “That’s why I work to connect with as many individual students as possible. Because I know what this can mean to them, and I want them to know it.”

Spalding agreed.

“So many people look at graduation as the end of something,” she said before braving wind gusts that wreaked havoc with multiple graduation caps to hand out diplomas and hand shakes. “This is really their beginning. This is their launching pad to the next step in their lives, and they can be an inspiration to others.”