Dawn Penson will represent the students on OCC’s Board of Trustees during the 2019-20 academic year. As the Student Trustee she will attend monthly meetings and participate in all votes. Penson is a 41-year-old mother of three with a perfect 4.0 grade point average in the Human Services major. She is also blind. “I have experience being on the board for Arise, the National Federation of the Blind Syracuse chapter and all of the other advocacies I am involved with. I will bring experience to the Board of Trustees while highlighting my own position as a grown woman with children who came back to school with a disability.”
Penson lost her sight in 2012 after being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a rare genetic disorder that leads to a breakdown and loss of cells in the retina. “Before I lost my sight, I was very vain. It was all about me. The National Federation of the Blind and the New York State Commission for the Blind helped me to see there is life after blindness. Just because you’re blind or have a disability doesn’t mean you’re broken.”
Despite what she has lost, Penson doesn’t have any regrets. In fact, she feels fortunate. “My youngest son says all the time, ‘mommy I wish you could see.’ I see perfect. I see better now that I don’t have my sight than when I could see. If there was a cure today, I would not take it because the world to me is beautiful. Now I see the character of someone. Before it was all of the superficial things. It took me a long time to be secure with myself. I am very happy with myself.”
Penson will be sworn-in as Student Trustee at the first board meeting Tuesday, October 1. The meeting will be held in room W210 of the Whitney Applied Technology Center and is open to the public.
Alyssa Haines fell in love with science during her senior year at Camden High School but didn’t pursue higher education in the sciences immediately. Instead she decided to attend the Paul Mitchell School in Schenectady where students learn how to become a cosmetologist, barber, or makeup artist. After two years she decided to make a change.
In 2017 she enrolled at Onondaga Community College. While in a Microbiology class she took an interest in the microscope and her love of science took off from there. In her Anatomy & Physiology class the teaching methods of Dr. Lynn Infanti had a profound impact on her. “She inspired me with the amount of effort and time she dedicated to her students. She would crawl around the classroom like an amoeba to help us understand how it moves, as well as go over the human body multiple times and let student’s video her going over them as well as ways to remember parts easier. She made me love science on a whole other level.”
Haines also decided to take American Sign Language (ASL) because she thought it might help her to have that skill set in the medical field. She enjoyed the experience so much she joined the ASL Club. “Professor Rebecca Dadey really inspired me with how helpful she was in class. She’s very strong and independent. She was always available whenever I needed help.”
Eunice Williams OCC’s Chief Diversity Officer also played a key role in Haines growth here as a work/study student. “She was always cheerful and uplifting. She always gave me new opportunities and reassured me whenever I was concerned about everything I had going on.”
Along with the ASL Club, Haines was also a member of the Diversity & Inclusion Council and a member of the committee which organized Unity Day. “I loved the experience here of being involved and getting to know so many people. I networked, built relationships and felt like I was more a part of the school because of it.”
After she receives her degree this Saturday, Haines plans to transfer to SUNY Cobleskill where she will major in Histology which is the study of the microscopic structure of tissue.
Once Kayla Sherman realized she was interested in a medical career but preferred to stay away from the front lines of medical care, she needed to figure out a career path. “I like anatomy and physiology and wanted to work in the medical profession.” When she was considering her college options a girlfriend who worked at the V-A Hospital told her, ‘they hire graduates from OCC all the time.’
In 2017 Sherman took her girlfriend’s advice and enrolled in OCC’s Health Information Technology major. Every time a patient receives treatment, a record is created. Each one is essential for quality patient care and the financial health of hospitals, clinics, nursing homes and doctor’s offices. Health Information Technology is one of the fastest growing careers in the country.
Throughout Sherman’s two years in the program she took most of her classes online. “It’s challenging. You have to be very disciplined. The program covers every position you can have in a health information management office. It’s not just medical coding.” Medical coding is the translation of healthcare diagnosis, procedures, medical services, and equipment into universal medical alphanumeric codes.
During this academic year Sherman passed her Registered Health Information Technician credentialing exam, clearing the way for her to take a part-time job at Hutchings Psychiatric Facility in Syracuse where she performed health information related tasks. While working at Hutchings she also completed a three week long “professional experience” at the V-A Hospital which further exposed her to her career choice.
When she’s not working or taking classes, Sherman and her husband are busy raising their two children, ages 10 and 7. She is also active in their children’s school, serving as the president of their parent teacher group. Sherman has juggled life, school and work masterfully. She is a member of the college’s chapter of international honor society Phi Theta Kappa, was recently named the top student in the Health Information technology major and will earn her degree later this month. “Everything has worked out very well. If anyone is interested in Health Information Technology, I would tell them to come to OCC. You get to be in a medical profession but in an office setting.”
Harth Alawad is about to experience two milestones in the span of a week-and-a-half. On May 9 he will be sworn-in as a United States citizen. Nine days later he will walk across the stage in the SRC Arena and receive his college degree. “I am so happy. Where I am today is such a big difference. I have gone from nothing to big things.”
Five years ago, Alawad and his family left Iraq and came to the United States. As he adjusted to his new life in a new world, he also began to learn English. “It was really hard to learn a new language, but I worked at it.” In 2016 he enrolled at OCC. He started with English as Second Language and other basic classes, then worked his way up.
Alawad has become an outstanding student and will earn a degree in Humanities & Social Sciences. Outside class he has immersed himself in campus life, serving on the Diversity & Inclusion Council, the Unity Day Committee, and Student Conversation Circles. “OCC is a great college. It feels like home to me. They have so many programs that support students and great professors.”
What’s next for Alawad? He’s not sure but knows ultimately he would like to do something that helps people. He feels the need to give back to those who, at age 28, have given him a new start at life. “I’m so proud to be here and to be an American. This country saved our family. They have given us so much.”
Two years ago at this time Patrick McGuinness was confused about where he was going next. He was a senior at McGraw High School in Cortland County and he was being bombarded with information about college options. “I was going to college fairs and getting a ton of information. It was too much. Then one of my teachers told me ‘I went to Onondaga Community College and it was really good for me.’ I came here for a visit, walked around campus and decided this was where I would go to college.”
Today McGuinness is in his final semester at OCC. He’s a Humanities major and an officer in the Student Association where he serves as vice president of Entertainment & Programming. “It’s fun being an officer. I like helping people when they come in (to the Student Association office on the first floor of the Gordon Student Center) and I like the people I work with. It’s a great way to meet people. Plus, your tuition is paid for. You don’t have the added stress of worrying about loans.”
McGuinness will transfer to a new college in the fall. His goal is to become a therapist. “I think everybody should have one so you have a guaranteed person to vent to. You can outsource labor to machines, but people are always going to have problems. There will always be a need for therapists.”
Billy Campbell got scared straight during the summer of 2018. Every morning he would put on his jeans and steel-toed boots and go to his job in a sweltering hot warehouse. For 50 to 55 hours a week he would lift and carry heavy items from one end of the large facility to the other. Several of the people he worked shoulder to shoulder with had been part of a parolee release program and served lengthy sentences. “Guys would ask me my gig and I would tell them I didn’t care about school. They’d say ‘You’re an idiot if you don’t go to class. Is this what you want to do for the rest of your life because this is the path you’re taking?’ It turned me around. I told myself ‘this semester I’m getting a 4.0.’”
Campbell returned to the OCC campus for the fall 2018 semester determined to do his best. He took 17 credits and earned five A’s and a B+ for a grade point average of 3.88. He did it while serving the campus community as a senator-at-large with the Student Association.
His success was proof that people can change. Throughout high school Campbell had done the bare minimum. He started college at a four-year school but quit half way through his first semester. His lifelong dream was to be a professional lacrosse player but by his own admission, “I wasn’t any good.”
Campbell would struggle through three semesters at OCC before his summer warehouse experience. He had friends who would make him get out of bed for class. They encouraged him to see a therapist and work through his issues. Their efforts made a difference. “I’m really grateful to the people who believed in me more than I believed in myself.”
This is Campbell’s final semester at OCC. He’s on track to earn his Communication Studies degree in May. He’s only taking 12 credits this semester, but his schedule has never been more full. He’s an officer in the Student Association, serving as the Vice President of Media. Campbell is also interning two days a week in the Corporate Communications office at SRC, Inc. His goal is to transfer to Syracuse University and major in Communications and Rhetorical Studies.
When he reflects on where his life was headed Campbell feels fortunate to have chosen a different path. “In my darkest hours of doing awful in school and not having a plan and no discipline I would think to myself, ‘what am I going to do?’ Where I’m at now I have such a foundation. I can sleep at night thinking, ‘I’m doing what I have to do.’”
Being an officer in the Student Association has positively impacted Calli Giron’s entire college experience. It’s changed her as a person and given her a better understanding of how a college operates. “I was an introverted person before taking this position. Now I talk to people everywhere I go. This has been a great experience for me. I’ve learned networking, how a college works, and met people who will help me through anything.”
Giron came to OCC from Chandler High School in Arizona along with her twin sister. Both will earn their degrees this May. Cassi is a Hospitality Management major while Calli’s focus is Criminal Justice. “Most of the professors in my major are former police officers. They give us real-life examples of what they’ve seen while doing their jobs.”
Giron’s goal is to become a homicide detective. Before enrolling in a police academy she plans to spend a year working, preferably in a moderate climate. “I want to move somewhere where there isn’t any snow but isn’t too hot.”
Breanna Cherchio has always wanted to help others. Her desire to do so started at a young age. “I grew up in the church. I was always doing kids ministries, making a set for a play or helping any way I could. It’s always been in my nature to help people.”
Cherchio enrolled at OCC as an Early Childhood major but an experience outside class ultimately led her in a different direction. “I was at a party and there was a little boy there who was deaf and no one was talking to him. I knew some sign language from doing interpretive dance and was able to communicate with him. His face lit up and he started teaching me signs. He was adorable.” Cherchio wound up taking an American Sign Language class, loved the experience and changed majors. “The passion of the professors here, especially Professor Dadey really made a difference. Her willingness to accept us into her life, culture and community were very important.”
Cherchio is in her second year serving the campus community as a member of Student Government. This semester she is the organization’s president. Being a leader has allowed her to see campus life and activities through a different lens. “There are a lot of events and initiatives happening for which I am able to be part of the planning. Seeing all the work that goes into the underlying themes and messages is really interesting. It’s encouraging to see how much effort the campus puts forth to use every opportunity to teach and guide us as students.”
When she’s not on campus Cherchio can be found working as a Direct Support Professional for the Resource Center for Independent Living. Earlier this semester she was sworn-in to the United States Navy. She has been classified as a Cryptonics Technician Interpretive and will be trained in a language while stationed in Monterey, California. Following her time in the Navy she hopes to work with children as an educational interpreter or an assistant for a teacher with deaf students.
The United States Marine Corps changed the course of Vincent Camarena’s life. Before enlisting in October of 2010, he was pretty much out of options. Camarena had been kicked out of high school for disciplinary reasons and didn’t have any role models in his life. “I never knew my dad and I didn’t have a solid mentor. I was missing a lot of structure and discipline. The Marines filled that void.”
Camarena spent five years serving his country. He was deployed twice and visited 10 different countries while working up to the rank of Sergeant. He also learned a lot about life. “The Marines made me a better person. They showed be the difference between right and wrong. The gave me a list of rules to live by and the mindset to accomplish my goals.”
When Camarena wasn’t training Marines for artillery combat he was taking advantage of his down time. He bought “Books for Dummies” and became his own teacher. “I had to catch up so I educated myself in the sciences and mathematics.”
After being honorably discharged in 2015 Camarena returned to Central New York and worked various jobs. In the summer of 2016 he decided to enroll at OCC. “When I started here, I experienced the ‘imposter phenomenon.’ It felt like I didn’t belong and wasn’t smart enough to be an engineer. I felt like everyone was ahead of me, knowledge wise. But then, the hardened warrior within me summoned the courage to carry on and push through my first semester. After a few semesters I became a better student. I was more confident and no longer feeling like the imposter. Yes, I recieved bad grades, but I learned a great deal from my mistakes and worked hard on my weaknesses.”
The days of the ‘imposter phenomenon’ are long gone. Camarena now carries an outstanding 3.75 grade point average and has been invited to join OCC’s chapter of international honor society Phi Theta Kappa. He’s achieved excellence while pursuing a very challenging major, Engineering Science. His attraction to the course work started when he was a Marine. “My job specialty was artillery. We used weapons that weighed nearly 5 tons and could shoot accurately within one meter from 24 miles away. These weapons are called Howitzers. I was observing them one day and wondered to myself ‘how are the Howitzer, the mortar, weapons, radios, cars and everything designed and built?’ So I did a great deal of research into many types of engineering and the school work that is required.”
Camarena will receive his degree in May. He plans to transfer and pursue a bachelor’s degree as he works toward one day earning his engineering license. As he looks back on where he was at the start of this decade, he offers advice for anyone in a similar situation. “There are two things that can make anything possible. First, you must believe it is possible and make it possible. Second, NEVER QUIT AND NEVER GIVE UP!”
Mahogani Hills is about as busy as a college student can be. Doing coursework as she pursues her Human Services degree is just part of it. Hills is an RA in Shapero Hall, works as a Student Conduct Student Assistant, is a social media reporter for OCC’s Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter accounts, and is also part of the advertisements associated with OCC’s “Believe in Better” fundraising campaign. She also interns at the YWCA and teaches STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to girls ages 5 to 12. On Saturday’s she carves out time for her part-time job at a restaurant and Sunday’s are reserved for church.
If all of that wasn’t enough Hills recently started her own eyelash business, “Cupid’s Lashes 315.” How does she do it all? “Most nights I’m up very very late. I prioritize. What needs to get done first gets done first. Everything else gets done when it gets done. Being busy has made me a better person and kept me more involved. When I had free time, I’d try to go to the mall or do things with my friends I shouldn’t be doing.”
Hills will earn her degree in May, then plans to head south. She wants to open a homeless shelter in Atlanta and help the less fortunate. “Growing up I always had an interest in helping people. This is something I’ve always wanted to do. I want to help the homeless and work with people with mental illnesses.”
When you support Onondaga Community College, you are making a statement that you believe in the importance of quality affordable education for everyone. You are creating new opportunities and new beginnings for students and our greater community.