NEW BRITAIN - Anabelle Diaz admitted that she never aspired to attend college as a kid.
“I had this mentality instilled in me that I wasn’t worthy,” the 38-year-old said.
Seconds before Central Connecticut State University President Zulma Toro gave her hug to congratulate receiving her doctor of education degree Thursday night, Diaz smiled when she said, “I am so excited, it’s surreal.”
Erin Shemeth received her master’s in counselor education despite being diagnosed with epilepsy just before coming to CCSU as an undergraduate. At nearly 49 years old, Master Sgt. Bruce Billouin, a full-time recruiter with the Army National Guard, juggled his job, family and an intense internship at Bristol Eastern High School to get his graduate level diploma.
Diaz received her Doctor of Education after a journey that started in the hairdressing program at Hartford’s Prince Technical High School where she is now an assistant principal.
The three students were among the more than 300 individuals who received their graduate degrees at CCSU Thursday marking years of hard work and commitment.
Graduate students define CCSU as a university, said the school’s interim provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, Dr. Susan Pease, who told the crowd about Shemeth’s, Billouin’s and Diaz’s accomplishments as they navigated graduate school. “Their stories tell a lot about them and about CCSU,” Pease said.
Throughout Kaiser Gymnasium there were plenty of similar stories. Dawn Baeza was instructing her two-year-old to cheer for his father who he calls “Poppy” when he stood up to get his diploma for graduating the Master’s program in construction management. The family was living in Puerto Rico but came back to Connecticut to be closer to her parents after her husband Alejandro’s father died. Baeza’s father does construction and took her husband under his wing, she said. It inspired Alejandro Baeza to get his Master’s degree, she said. “Today is a great day but very bittersweet because his parents can’t be here, Baeza said.
Dr. Toro said she was overjoyed to be at her first graduate commencement since being appointed president of CCSU in the past year. She told graduates to be “an active participant” in democracy, be advocates of human rights and diversity and be a part of a dialogue to “find solutions to the challenges affecting our cities, state and country.”
“In summary, we expect you to get involved in the future of the community you are part of shaping,” she added.
Shemeth had to deal with the social, emotional and physical issues caused by her condition, Pease said. “But Ms. Shemeth has not been deterred, and she credits CCSU’s disability resources for helping her through the many setbacks,” Pease added. Shemeth graduated in three years.
Billouin had to withdraw from his classes at CCSU a few times when emergency duty with the National Guard called.
He graduated in four years and was “thrilled’ to be at Thursday’s ceremony, Pease said. “At about to turn 49 years old, he says, ‘mission accomplished!’” Pease said.
Diaz came to the United States from Puerto Rico when she was nine years old. She said she had gaps in her education that made her ineligible to attend college. But the university’s Education Opportunity Program got her prepared quickly. Since then, she’s earned her undergraduate and Master’s degree at CCSU. She decided to get her doctorate to hone her leadership skills.
“To be back at Prince Tech has allowed me to blossom as a leader because I know the needs of students in an urban district,” she said.
Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or .