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More than 800 toss caps at York College

In the crowd of more than 800 York College graduates Friday, many wiped away tears and broke into raucous rounds of applause as they watched their valedictorian, grandmother Gloria Cecilia Velasco, describe the journey that so many York students have taken: that of overcoming adversity and achieving dreams.

“All of us here have amazing stories to tell of hardships and humble beginnings in far away lands,” said Velasco, who is originally from Colombia and now lives in Rego Park. “York College makes the miraculous achievable.”

Velasco, who had a 3.97 GPA, juggled full−time jobs and raising a family while pursuing her degree in occupational therapy. It was exhausting, she said, and she nearly gave up.

“I put a big calendar on my refrigerator, and I would cross off each day after it ended,” said Velasco, a mother of two and grandmother of one. “One day, I was extremely exhausted, and I hesitated before crossing it off. I thought maybe it’s time for me to give up. Maybe I bit off more than I could chew. But then I called my friend and I heard her doing so many things. I heard the baby crying in the background and I thought about how my classmates are going through the same things as me. So I kept going. I’m a York student, and York students don’t give up easily.”

Officials who spoke at York’s 39th commencement ceremony on the Health and Physical Education Field in Jamaica congratulated the students for overcoming daunting obstacles — working full time to pay for college, taking care of children and parents — and still managing to graduate.

Gov. David Paterson, who delivered the commencement address, told students he had dropped out of college because he believed a degree would not help him deal with the biases that future employers would hold about his being legally blind. But, Paterson said, he like many York students jumped barriers and became determined to live the life he wanted.

“I ended up graduating three years behind my class in college because why study if nobody’s going to give you a job?” Paterson said. “Many of you will graduate with distinction, but some of you will graduate like me, barely getting by. It goes to show you maybe the best is yet to come.”

Paterson received plenty of laughs during his speech, especially when he told the crowd that “being the speaker of a graduation is like being a body at an old Irish wake. They want you to have a party, but they don’t want you to say very much.”

U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D−N.Y.) advised students to find a job they love.

“There are two tests in life, and they’re called the Monday morning and Friday night test,” Schumer said. “When you wake up Monday morning and can say, ‘I can’t wait to get to work,’ and on Friday night you say, ‘I can’t wait to get to my family,’ God has been good to you. Class of 2009, I hope you can pass those two tests.”

Borough President Helen Marshall , U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D−Forest Hills) and City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D−St. Albans) also congratulated students at the ceremony.

The 836 York graduates range in age from 19 to 70 and hail from all over the world. The top countries of birth for York students other than the United States are Jamaica, Guyana, Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e−mail at or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 174.

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