Charles M. Blow, Innovative Columnist for The New York Times, to Deliver College's 45th Commencement Keynote Address

PHILADELPHIA, May2, 2011—Charles M. Blow, a visual opinion/editorial columnist for The New York Times, will deliver the keynote address at Community College of Philadelphia’s 45th Commencement, at 10 a.m., Saturday, May 7, at The Liacouras Center at Temple University, Broad Street at Cecil B. Moore Avenue.

Blow pairs the written word with charts and graphs to express his opinion about issues ranging from “The Demise of Dating,” a column about a report on the drop in dating among high school students because of an increase in casual sex, to “Empire at the End of Decadence,” a column and chart about how today’s America does not stack up very well against other countries on measures like income and equality, well-being and food insecurity.

Blow began his innovative weekend column in April 2008, after working in various positions at The Times as graphics editor, graphics director and design director for news. He also writes a blog entitled, “By the Numbers” for The Times’ website. Previously, Blow was art director at National Geographic magazine.

A native of Louisiana, Blow is one of five siblings raised by a single mother, who is a retired school teacher and school administrator. She went back to school and received her master’s degree after taking evening courses. “My mother, partly a product of community colleges herself, taught me a valuable lesson: That learning wasn’t simply a ladder for ascending your circumstances, it was a matter of a higher realm,” Blow said. “It allowed for the exploration of self, pushing us further down the path of personal purpose, until we come to realizing why, in fact, we are actually alive.”

A magna cum laude graduate of Louisiana’s Grambling State University, Blow will address the College’s more than 1,800 graduates, their family members and friends. This year’s graduates include eight College employees, 20 police officers, and 21 international students from 14 different countries.

“The College is the bridge that moves residents from underemployment or unemployment to skilled jobs that pay a living wage,” said College President Stephen M. Curtis. “More than 75 percent of our graduates find employment in the Philadelphia area.”

Larry Thi, 20, of Southwest Philadelphia, will be one of the proud graduates on Saturday. Thi was one of 60 outstanding community college students selected from hundreds nationally to receive a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship worth up to $30,000 a year. Thi, who is Vietnamese, his younger brother and sisters were raised by their mom. In his scholarship essay, Thi writes of how his “family maneuvered from a one-room basement with my single mother and two siblings into a rented house in another impoverished neighborhood, which we call our ‘American Dream’.”

The family shared that basement room and its one queen-size bed for 10 years. Thi remembers one particular night when he and his siblings huddled beneath thin cotton blankets on the basement’s cold tile floor unable to sleep. They promised one another that together they would dig themselves out of the “The Underground,” the name they gave to their basement room.

Thi promised to become a scholar of American and Asian-American history and teach at a community college where he could help students like himself. His brother vowed to become a lawyer to protect the rights and interests of Asian-Americans and other minorities. His sister wants to teach biology at the public school level.

Today, Thi’s family lives in Southwest Philadelphia and continues to struggle financially. He is graduating with a 4.0 grade point average and with the help of the scholarship, plans to transfer to an Ivy League college in September. His brother and sister are high school honor students. “With continued effort, my siblings and I will inevitably fulfill those promises once vowed in ‘The Underground’," he writes.

Noel R. Aragon, 28, of El Salvador, but currently living in Northern Liberties, will represent the Class of 2011 as student speaker at Commencement. Aragon has been a part-time student since 2006, slowly but steadily pursuing his associate degree in International Studies, which he plans to use toward his dream of working for an international humanitarian organization like the Red Cross. He worked two jobs, while in school, including one job as a CPR safety instructor for the American Red Cross in Philadelphia.

“I came here without expectations and just wanted to learn, but it has been a good experience for me here,” he said of his time at the College. “The College has been my path to the American culture by opening my mind to my new home. The College has been my path to leadership and involvement, allowing me to exploit my skills as a student and a community leader.”

After graduating from the College on Saturday, Aragon plans to transfer to either West Chester University or Penn State University’s Abington campus.

Stefanie Gisler, 25, of Switzerland, who currently lives in Somerton, is one of three graduates to win a coveted two-year scholarship to Bucknell University starting in September. Gisler, an international student, initially came to Philadelphia as a student at the University of Pennsylvania’s English Language Program. After completing the language program, she decided to remain in Philadelphia to continue her education at Community College of Philadelphia. The other Bucknell winners graduating are Yopy Jap and Kevin McGrady. Bucknell is one of eight highly selective universities participating in the community college transfer initiative sponsored by the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. Students in the Bucknell program are recruited from five community colleges in Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Michael Wickliffe, 47, of University City, was successfully employed for years as a floral and special event designer, but six years ago, he realized that his relatively limited skills would not take him further. “It was a no-brainer,” he said. “I could no longer get by without a college education.”

Still, Wickliffe’s inner-voice came up with a litany of reasons why he would not succeed. “I thought of every reason possible to disqualify myself: I was too old, not smart enough, did not have enough time; or that I could not afford it,” he recalled. In the end, none of his doubts proved true. Wickliffe excelled as a student, maintaining a high grade point average and membership in the Rho Epsilon Chapter of Phi Theta Kappa (PTK), the international honor society for community college students. He also found time to take on leadership roles in PTK, and the Student Program Committee, and to serve as a Student Ambassador. He accomplished all of this while continuing to work.

After receiving his associate degree, Wickliffe plans to transfer through the College’s Dual Admissions Program to Temple University to complete his undergraduate work in Psychology with a minor in Cultural Anthropology.

Karen White, 51, of Olney, is another 2011 graduate brought back into the classroom by the need for a mid-life career change. White has a bachelor’s degree in Business Law from Temple University that she earned in 1993. But after her last job was outsourced overseas in 2009, White felt it was time to consider other career options. She picked up a copy of Community College of Philadelphia’s course catalogue and it fell open to the course descriptions under Behavioral Health/Human Services. White found her new calling. White will receive her associate’s in Behavioral Health/Human Services, with a major in Social Gerontology. A member of PTK, she has a high grade point average and has been accepted to the graduate program at Bryn Mawr College, where she plans to pursue double master’s degrees in Social Services and Law and Social Policy.