April 27, 2018 GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Dr. Juan R. Olivarez called on Grand Rapids Community College graduates to follow their passions and have an impact on others after receiving the President Emeritus Award during the 101st commencement on Friday.
More than 460 students, their families and friends participated in the ceremony, which included the first graduates from GRCC’s Early/Middle College program and honorary degrees to three students from Noorthoek Academy, which serves people with special needs.
GRCC President Bill Pink, presiding over his first commencement, praised Olivarez, saying, “the rich, fertile soil of this intuition has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the history of this place, the people who have gone before me as leaders.”
Olivarez guided Grand Rapids Community College through 10 years of growth and challenges. He became the first Hispanic president of a Michigan college or university when he was tapped to lead GRCC in 1999.
The son of migrant laborers, Olivarez worked in Grand Rapids Public Schools for more than 20 years, and became GRCC's dean of Institutional Research in 1991. He was named the college's eighth president and is known for his efforts to develop community partnerships and boost minority enrollment so all West Michigan students have the best opportunities for a strong education. He retired from GRCC in 2008.
“Based on my 47-year career, and what I’ve learned about many of you, I have three simple points that I want you to take away tonight,” Olivarez told graduates. “Follow your passion; set high goals for yourself, and believe that you can have an impact on anything you choose. I hope that my story can be an inspiration for you, but your stories can also be an inspiration for each of you.”
Other highlights included:
- Jane Doyle, Michigan’s last surviving Women Airforce Service Pilots flier, receiving the 2018 Distinguished Alumna Award. Doyle was studying at Grand Rapids Junior College in 1940 and learned about a new Civilian Pilot Training program. She joined the WASPs, part of an elite group trained to transport aircraft, equipment and personnel, and perform flight tests on planes that had undergone repairs.
- Fátima Nieves receiving Faculty Emeritus status. She is the first Hispanic staff member to receive this honor. Nieves was an academic advisor known for helping students -- especially international students and those who spoke limited English -- navigate higher education. She is the first person in the Academic Advising and Transfer Center to receive Faculty Emeritus.
- The first group – 17 students – from GRCC’s Early/Middle College program at Cedar Springs High School received associate degrees, along with 20 students from the Wyoming program. Seven students received industrial maintenance certificates through a program GRCC started last year with the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District and Herman Miller.
- Honorary Associate of Arts degrees for Noorthoek Academy students Katie Aubert, Leetrice Souza and David Wolven.
Grand Rapids Community College has been offering educational opportunities in West Michigan for more than 100 years. Established in 1914, the college offers degree courses, certification and training programs, and workshops and personal enrichment classes. Offerings are held on GRCC’s downtown Grand Rapids campus, and at several locations throughout Kent and Ottawa counties, as well as through distance learning.