DIXON – Valbona Bajrami reminded her fellow graduates that commencement is more than just a ceremony, but rather, an acknowledgement of commitment.
"This ceremony serves for two things: the commitment it took to get here and the lifelong commitment we now hold to our futures," she said.
Bajrami was among the recipients of more than 600 associate degrees and certificates conferred at Sauk Valley Community College on Friday night.
Almost 150 graduates, clad in charcoal gray caps and gowns, strode across the stage to rousing applause. Some raised their hands in the air in celebration. Some waived to family and friends in the audience. Most just paused for photographs.
The keynote speaker, Whiteside County Regional Superintendent Bob Sondgeroth, told the graduates that commencement also is a show of courage.
"You now join those ranks [of those with an education beyond high school] because you had the gumption to do it," he said.
Bajrami, 20, of Dixon is living proof of that.
The daughter of Albanian immigrants, who fled political oppression in the former Yugoslavia in 1988, learned it takes courage to achieve success.
"They arrived empty-handed and with no English-speaking skills," she said in her speech. "They had a hard time finding employment because they lacked any kind of American education."
Her parents, Esat and Bukurije Bajrami, both had high school diplomas. Her father even had a law degree. But their education was "close to useless" in the United States.
Her parents struggled, though, so they could provide their three children with opportunities they never had – perhaps none more important than an education.
Bajrami, a 2011 graduate of Dixon High School and a Sauk Scholar, credits the community college with allowing her to step out of her comfort zone, get involved and determine her direction.
"When I got to Sauk, I didn't know what I was doing," she said. "Honestly, although I knew I wanted to do something in the medical field, I wasn't sure I would stick with it ..."
She took mostly science classes – biology, chemistry and physics – toward an Associate of Science degree to prepare her for her eventual move to medical school. She points to one-on-one attention from her instructors and a small, close-to-home environment for her success.
"They say usually that's the the hard stuff, that people struggle there," she said. "And they say that if you can't make it from there, you won't make it to medical school."
Bajrami also credits her adviser, Cyrus Kooshesh, with helping her pull through.
"Whenever I was worried about my grades, or whenever I felt like I was struggling with something, [my adviser] was there," she said. "He encouraged me to get involved, to get out of my comfort zone.
"I wouldn't have had that attention if I had gone somewhere else. And I definitely wouldn't have accomplished as much if I had gone somewhere else."
She was part of the TRIO program, the Phi Theta Kappa academic honor society and student government. She also tutored in math, biology and chemistry at the Learning Assistance Center on campus.
Bajrami has an internship in Turkey this summer. She will live, study and work for 2 months in the Izmir region as part of the Teach and Travel program through the Federation of Balkan American Associations.
She will intern at two private hospitals in Istanbul, where she will job-shadow doctors and surgeons and work with patients. She then will teach English to students at a private school. She also will volunteer with organizations, such as the American Red Cross.
Bajrami plans to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison and major in biology as she works toward medical school.
She closed her speech with the wise words of Dr. Seuss: "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the one who'll decide where to go."