NEW PORT RICHEY For 44-year-old Hilesca Hidalgo, the most difficult thing about returning to college after years of being away from classrooms had nothing to do with textbooks or late-night cram sessions.
Instead, the hardest thing, she said, was spending so much time away from her daughters, Caelin Smallwood, 6, and Carla Smallwood, 4.
“Not being there,” Hidalgo said wistfully, moments after she received a diploma Wednesday during Pasco-Hernando Community College’s spring commencement ceremony.
Hidalgo was among about 370 PHCC students honored at one of two commencement ceremonies held on the college’s New Port Richey campus.
A morning graduation was for students earning their associate in science degrees, applied technology diplomas, certificates or GED diplomas.
The afternoon ceremony was for students earning associate in arts degrees.
PHCC serves many students, such as Hidalgo, who aren’t the traditional college age, but who decide later in life to further their educations.
In Hidalgo’s case, the decision to earn a nursing degree was prompted by the loss of her job as a construction manager. For awhile, she spent time as a stay-at-home mother, but in 2011 she enrolled at PHCC.
“I always liked helping people and nursing was a good fit,” Hidalgo said.
During the morning commencement, she and other graduates heard speakers who gave them praise and advice while family members and friends looked on, waiting to shower them with flowers, hugs or both once the ceremony was over.
“You’ve worked very hard, you’ve been persistent, you’ve sacrificed to be where you are today,” said Burt Harres, the college’s vice president of instruction and provost for the New Port Richey campus.
“There is no limit to what you can accomplish, as so many of our past graduates did, if you put your mind to it,” said Rao Musunuru, chairman of PHCC’s board of trustees.
Musunuru encouraged graduates to express gratitude to those who helped them reach this day, including parents, grandparents, spouses, friends, faculty members and even taxpayers and college donors.
Student speaker Wendy Downey, 56, said she put her career and life plans on hold more than 30 years ago at age 23 when her son became disabled after a traffic accident and needed constant care.
In 2009, Downey finally began focusing again on her shelved dream of becoming a nurse. On Wednesday, she received an associate degree in nursing.
“I was apprehensive starting back to school,” she said.
Community college proved the perfect setting and Downey said she “felt accepted by students of all ages.”
She concluded her remarks with a favorite quote from 19th century author George Eliot:
“It is never too late to be what you might have been.”