CHAMPAIGN - Andre Moraes picked Parkland sight unseen.
Myriah Benner and Jake Calhoun both knew all about the community college because they live in Tuscola and Tolono. They grew up knowing Parkland was a good choice for students who want to get a smooth start in college at a reasonable cost.
Tonight, all three will earn Parkland degrees in 8 p.m. ceremonies at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Nancy Steinman, dean of students, said about 1,200 students will receive fall, spring and summer degrees at commencement this year, and about 350 of them are expected to go through commencement.
"It's our largest graduating class to date," Steinman said. "It's a way to celebrate their accomplishments. Some of them struggled to get an education. Some didn't ... It's also a way to celebrate the support they received from their family, friends, the faculty and the support staff who all helped get them that far."
Benner already has a job, a job she enjoys that uses the skills she learned at Parkland. She plans to continue working at Carle Clinic on Philo Road as an administrative assistant until she earns the money to pursue her other interest, teaching, at a university.
"I started in education at Parkland, but then I got a job in admissions and I enjoyed it so I went to the administrative assistants program," said Benner, who will give the tassel-turning signal to her fellow graduates tonight.
Calhoun, who studied economics and finance in Parkland's agriculture and business program, will work this summer to save money for his studies next year at the University of Illinois. His eventual goal: to become an economics professor.
Moraes also has a job as a graphics artist at Champaign's UpClose Marketing. He's weighing his future options, an exercise that's complicated by the fact that he's a native of Sao Paulo, Brazil, attending classes on a student visa.
He said he finished high school in 1997 in Sao Paulo and worked to save money to study computer animation in the United States. He did a lot of Internet research to find out options, but was sold on Parkland after he met a college representative at a study abroad fair in Brazil.
"I enrolled on the Internet," Moraes said. "I'd never been to Champaign before. Parkland was easy - no SAT, no ACT. They said, 'You come here and we'll do tests and figure out where you should be.'"
He decided to live at Robeson Hall, an option many international students choose. He took basic classes, and he switched his major from animation to design.
"I was more interested in design than programming," Moraes said.
He said he was overwhelmed the first week of classes because "the language, the pace and the environment were all different."
"I had to think in English 100 percent of the time," said Moraes, who taught that language back home.
But he started working as a photographer for Parkland's Prospectus newspaper the first week, and that changed his outlook and his exposure.
"I took pictures of events all over campus and met people," Moraes said. "I spent a good part of my day at the campus and got in touch with everyone."
He started working in September as an intern at UpClose designing letterheads, business cards, posters and other products using the same software he'd used at Parkland.
"I had to learn about the printing process, but the rest was applications of what we do at school," Moraes said.
UpClose has offered him a full-time job, and immigration laws allow him 12 months in the country to work in the area where he studied. Then his options are to tackle the visa issue here with an employer, to keep his student visa and attend a four-year college or to return to Brazil to get a job or open his own design firm. Moraes is torn.
"It's hard to think about going back although a degree is valuable because I wouldn't be paid as much as I can earn here," he said. "But my family's there. I have a year to decide."
He's seriously looking at attending art school at Chicago or Savannah, Ga.
"Parkland's a good transition to a bigger city," said Moraes, who dreams of becoming an art director for a major magazine responsible for giving the publication its look.
Calhoun spent a lot of his Parkland time working with leadership organizations, and he's currently president of the Illinois Postsecondary Agricultural Student Organization.
The 2001 Unit 7 graduate originally planned to major in business, but he said Parkland instructor Bruce Henrikson's agricultural economics classes started him in a new direction.
"They made sense to me," Calhoun said. "It comes naturally. And there was something about Parkland. I talked to friends at the University of Illinois and found out about the size of their classes. Parkland's a good step between high school and college, and it helps you decide what you want to do."
He got involved with the college's Ag Club, became president last year, and that launched his leadership career. Calhoun said the statewide student organization he now heads is like FFA for community colleges and holds competitions for students and other activities.
He's also attended one Ag Futures of America conference for leadership training and plans to go again later this year on a scholarship provided by the Champaign County Farm Bureau.
Calhoun is also winner of the Don Nelson Transfer Scholarship.
Parkland's Ag Club was named organization of the year this year, Henrikson was named adviser of the year, and Calhoun was named outstanding member of any organization.
"I've changed a lot," he said. "College isn't just about classes. I'm more responsible and organized. I don't waste time. Parkland's what you make of it. It's your opportunity to succeed with a teacher there to support you."
Benner, a 2000 Tuscola High School graduate, said she's naturally organized, and her classes taught her how to turn those traits into a career.
"I get things done and I like computers," she said. "Now I have a real job, and I'm waiting to decide what I want to do in the future."
At Carle, where she's worked since March, Benner keeps track of patients' records and other clinic details. She said she got the job first, and Parkland officials made it fit as an internship opportunity.
At school, she was a student ambassador, conducting tours of the campus and serving as a hostess at school events.
"I got used to the campus fast," Benner said. "Classes were fun, and they were about things I enjoy doing. The teachers were helpful. "
She said Parkland was a good experience because it also exposed her to diversity she never experienced in Tuscola.
"I enjoyed that," Benner said.
She has advice for youngsters who are launching their college education at Parkland or any other schools.
"Don't treat it like it's high school," Benner said. "Meet new people. Join a club. Get a job. You'll get to know the campus, and you'll find out how things work."
You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at email@example.com.