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The promise of tomorrow: With degrees in hand and the future in mind, Sauk students get ready to conquer new worlds

DIXON – Sauk Valley Community College graduates on the cusp of aspiring to new heights in careers, further education and community involvement were given an ambitious mission Friday: to conquer the world.

A packed college gymnasium of friends, family and supporters recognized the hundreds of students receiving degrees and certificates, including one woman whose lifetime goal is to increase the percentage of college graduates across the country.

Sauk awarded its third honorary degree to keynote commencement speaker Martha Kanter, executive director of the College Promise Campaign, which is a nationwide initiative that aims to build support and create college promise programs that pay for the first 2 years of students’ schooling.

For more than a year, Kanter provided Sauk with free services and advice on how to develop its own Promise program, which is in its early stages and could roll out as soon as 2022.

“I feel so honored and simply blessed, and I can’t thank you enough,” she said.

Kanter is a Senior Fellow at the Steinhardt Institute for High Education Policy at New York University, and she served as the U.S. Under Secretary of Education as part of former President Barack Obama’s administration.

As Under Secretary, the implementation of the Direct Student Loan program resulted in a 50 percent increase in college enrollment, growing from 6 million to 9 million students who are Pell Grant recipients.

She gave the graduates warm words of pride, praise and encouragement, telling them their investment of time, energy and effort is a threshold to a lifetime of benefits.

“Your accomplishments are awe inspiring,” she said.

She further emphasized the critical importance of attaining higher education, for being better equipped for the future, and being better equipped to shape the future of their communities.

“Your education is a step to conquering the world ... there are worlds left to conquer, and we need you to do that,” she said.

Kanter advised that the graduates be realistic about their futures and not stray from asking for help, to be open to change and new ideas, and to take others with them and strive to improve the quality of life for others.

Sauk President Dave Hellmich said the room of graduates, supporters, faculty and staff represented the strength of the Sauk Valley region.

The student commencement speakers were graduates Jake VanDeWoestyne and Abby Castillo.

Before studying psychology at Sauk, VanDeWoestyne, of Amboy, attended Madison Media Institute in Wisconsin about a decade ago for technical music recording, then moved back to Amboy to work on his family farm and veterinary clinic, and then worked for an independent contractor doing concrete work.

VanDeWoestyne spoke about how it’s better to keep moving forward and not be stuck thinking about changing the past.

“As I move on to the next promising phase of my education, it is tempting to wish that I had made the decision to go back to school sooner, or that I had made different choices immediately after high school. But I’ve come to think that that isn’t right,” he said. “The great jazz musician Miles Davis said ‘If you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that you play that determines if it’s good or bad.’”

He plans to transfer to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Castillo will be transferring to Elmhurst College to study graphic design. She thanked Sauk instructors, friends and family in her speech and encouraged the crowd to be “wholehearted in what you believe in.”

“I learned many things at Sauk, but something that has stuck with me is that I learned that it’s important to know what you believe – whether that be spiritually, socially, or politically,” she said.

The college also honored two alumni with awards.

Dixon Superintendent Margo Empen, a 1989 Sauk graduate, received the Distinguished Alumni Award for her longtime commitment to education and the community.

A new Alumni Achievement Award geared toward someone 35 or younger for outstanding achievements, public service and/or volunteer activities was presented to Rachel Kobus, a 2007 Sauk graduate and the associate director for alumni engagement for Illinois State University in Normal.

English and Education professor Amanda Eichman received an outstanding faculty award, philosophy instructor Brant Clements received an outstanding adjunct faculty award, system analyst Kristina Fordyce received an outstanding full-time staff award, and foundation assistant Nancy Breed received an outstanding part-time staff award.

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