Schenectady County

Thousands celebrate Excelsior College graduation

“I really wanted a 3.8 GPA,” Paul Elliott of Schenectady said as he pulled on his cap and gown on Fr

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“I really wanted a 3.8 GPA,” Paul Elliott of Schenectady said as he pulled on his cap and gown on Friday. “But I only ended up with a 3.75.”

Elliott was one of the 5,671 working adults from all over the country and the world honored at Excelsior College’s commencement ceremony on Friday at the Empire State Plaza Convention Center in Albany. Of the graduates, 300 attended the ceremony, while the rest tuned in via webcast.

Graduates received degrees from associate to master’s in fields including business and technology, liberal arts, nursing and health sciences. Elliott received his bachelor’s degree in manufacturing technology.

Elliott is a 36-year-old programmer at GE in Schenectady and lives with his wife, Marsha, and their two children, Bryanna and Austin. After receiving an associate degree in manufacturing technology from Hudson Valley Community College in 2004, he decided to go back to school to further his career.

“I realized I never would get where I wanted to be with just an associate’s degree,” he said. “A bachelor’s degree is the ticket that gets your résumé looked at.”

It took Elliott just about four years to complete his studies, and he was all smiles on Friday as he prepared to cross the stage, receiving encouraging hugs from his kids as his wife straightened his tie. Elliott completed his course work while working full-time at GE.

“When I was working the third shift, I’d be doing my homework in the middle of the night on my lunch break,” he said. “Other times, I would start an assignment online, take the trash out and then go back to it. The flexibility of online classes is priceless. I could do work at 2 p.m. or 4 a.m. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

A private, nonprofit institution, Excelsior College is an accredited and recognized way for adults and professionals to go back to school, according to President John Ebersole. Established in 1971, Excelsior is one of the nation’s oldest distance learning institutions.

The college has more than 32,000 students enrolled. Some students do take on-site classes in Albany, but many choose online courses.

“It’s sometimes hard to fit 30 hours of work into one 24-hour day, but online classes made it easy,” Elliott said.

Patti-Jo Ferraro, 48, of Colonie, received her master’s degree in nursing on Friday. She finished her degree in much the same way as Elliott, working full-time and taking classes online while juggling a family of four kids ages 22, 19, 17 and 13.

“It was a lot of work,” she said. “But I’ve always wanted an advanced degree. My family understood that it was important to me and that if I was doing school work, they may not get a hot meal.”

Ferraro now works at Saratoga Hospital.

In addition to honoring the class of 2009, the ceremony also conferred honorary degrees on the first president of the college, C. Wayne Williams, and Soledad O’Brien, an anchor and special correspondent for CNN.

O’Brien also delivered the keynote address and urged the graduates to set their own path and to “always do what you want and ignore those who tell you that you can’t.”

She also thanked the class for being examples to their families and the community for their dedication to education.

What’s next for the graduates? Some will go on to new jobs; others will continue their education at Excelsior or other institutions. Ferraro is going to use her new degree in her work at Saratoga Hospital.

Elliott has plans, too. He hopes to become an advanced manufacturing engineer at GE in 10 years.

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