County college draws diverse group of students

School sees itself as springboard to the world


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  • Gavin DeYoung Photos provided




  • Melissa Diaz




  • Danielle Petrone




By Laurie Gordon

— As Sussex County Community College expands its reputation as a regional educational and cultural hub, students of all ages are realizing it's a place where they can do education their way.

“We have so many fantastic students who come through SCCC,” said Dr. Jon Connolly, the college's president,” One of the things that makes our school so unique are the great stories we see unfold.”

He added, “There are students from totally different walks of life at SCCC ranging from teens fresh out of high school to international students to middle-aged adults returning to school after decades of working. This mixture of different types of people serves as a learning experience in itself, and it keeps life on campus fun and interesting.”

Melissa Ann Diaz

Melissa went to Lenape Valley Regional High School and said she always found academics very difficult.

“I have a learning disability which I was diagnosed with at a young age," she said. "Nothing ever came easily to me in school. What came to others as a simple task always seemed to be much harder for myself. I always judged myself harshly compared to others. At that age it was hard to concept that everyone has a weakness and a strength, and it’s ok to be different. But with my continued counseling that eventually became clear to me. What helped me get through high school was my mother who seeked help for my disabilities.”

Thanks to her mother and an IEP that was put in place, Diaz graduated high school with the rest of her class in 2011.

“To be completely honest, I wasn’t ready for college," she said. "I was afraid at first. I had fears surrounding the fact that I’ve always struggled with my education. I was afraid that the college wouldn’t take into account that I have a learning disability and I thought I would never succeed. My biggest fear was, what if I am not smart enough? While other students were applying and getting accepted into all these different colleges, I was stuck on these thoughts which held me back at first. With my mother’s guidance and my counselor’s advice we figured out that Sussex County Community College would be a great start, close to home, and smaller class rooms. We went to an open house at the college and that got me motivated and excited to start. I started right away taking my first class during the summer of 2011.”

Diaz knew that she wanted to get into a field of helping people. She just didn't know in which way.

“Truth be told I changed my major three times,” she said. “I really wasn’t sure what field I wanted to get into however as I continued my education and maturing as a person, I figured out that I wanted to be a social worker just like my counselor. I finally had a start in something to work towards and so I did. It has not been easy getting this far. There were many times I wanted to quit but something inside me just kept saying, I want to help people and I want to do something great with my life, don’t give up. I knew that if I quit I wouldn’t be happy. I would be giving up on my dreams. I didn’t want to end up working at some job that didn’t fulfill me and was just a pay check, when I knew inside I have so much more to offer. That’s what’s motivates me now and for the past eight years in Sussex County Community College. I never took a break from college nor did I stop attending. I didn’t want my learning disability to be an excuse to why I wouldn’t finish. There are many people with many different disabilities that don’t give up every day and I want to be one of them that inspires others to do the same.

"I didn’t do this alone, however. I had many influential supports such as my counselor. My counselor has always seen the potential in me that at times I didn’t see in myself. She is the encouraging motivation that always pushed me to do my best and to never give up. What I’ve struggled with most in college is watching others come after me and leave before me. Making me wonder if the struggle has been worth it. My counselor took a look at my IEP paperwork and test scores and she told me based on that information I wasn’t even supposed to make it to college. At first it made me sad to hear because I never realized how low my scores were but then it put a fire in me to continue! It just showed me that I have potential and that I can grow.”

Diaz also credits her mother who raised her sister and her as a single mother. “She has truly showed us how hard work can pay off and she has raised us both to be strong independent woman as she has been for my sister and me.”

With these supports, Diaz is proud to say that, after eight years, she will be graduating this year with her Associate's Degree.

“I’m so excited to see the day I get my diploma,” she said.

Danielle Petrone

Danielle has a different SCCC story. In her case, she's been there more than once. Petrone attended Lyndhurst High School and graduated in 1984 with honors.

“On my journey, I have changed careers from Dental Lab Technician to become a preschool teacher,” she said. “I chose Sussex County Community College because it was local, affordable and offered me the Early Childhood Certificate program I was desiring to complete.”

Petrone entered college for the first time in 1998.

“Then, I was a non-traditional student and changed careers from being a Dental Lab Technician/ stay at home yet working from home mom, to go after my passion of working with and teaching Children with Special Needs. I enrolled in part-time evening classes. It was a struggle with being married then to a man who quashed everything but still I went after my dream.”

When she achieved her first goal of earning here ECEDUC, Petrone was hired full time as a preschool teacher in a daycare center and held that title for the next 15 years.

“When I changed from being a preschool teacher to paraprofessional in the public schools, the yearning to finish my degree as a Child-Development Specialist kept calling me, so in the Fall of 2016, I listened and re-enrolled to finally reach my second goal, to earn my Associates Degree.

“While at SCCC, I met the most amazing professors, advisers, councilors and classmates, most of whom were younger than I was but that did not stop me from striving to be the best student I could be and striving to attain A's. When I was selected to join Psi Beta then Phi Theta Kappa, I was overjoyed. I quickly found out that I could apply for scholarships to help pay for my continuing education. When I did apply on the Phi Theta Kappa website, I was presented with the scholarship and also was named one of the two top academic students in community colleges in the whole state of New Jersey.”

Petrone's reaction? “I was flabbergasted and jumping for joy thinking, 'How did this happen?' Then I was contacted and asked if I would give a speech in Trenton at the award ceremony. I jumped at the chance to practice my effective ppeaking and relax and enjoy the honor of being in the same room with so many wonderful scholars. After enduring this recent year where I lost my mother to Lupus then became divorced for the second time, I just kept plugging away. I was determined to finish what I started.”

Petrone said, “I am so blessed to have received these scholarships otherwise, (even though working three part time jobs) I wouldn't have been able to afford to finish my last four classes, which takes me to my graduation date of Spring 2019. My plan after graduation is to transfer to a four year college, (I already was contacted by Harvard Extension School to finish there) or stay at SCCC in one of the transfer programs, to continue to work with Children with Special Needs, specifically Autism Spectrum and possibly attain a Masters to become BCBA.”

Of SCCC, she said, “I love my community college and I am so glad I chose SCCC for my exquisite education.”

Gavin DeYoung

Gavin graduated from Newton High School two years ago. There, he was a standout runner and wanted to attend and run for East Stroudsburg University (ESU).

“I chose SCCC for a fresh start and a real college experience. ESU was the idea from the start, but county felt like good preparation.”

SCCC doesn't have a cross country or track program, so that meant De Young would have to train on his own for two years. Not only did he stay fit, he continued volunteering to coach a youth running program and competed in races of varying distances. Now, he's headed to ESU in the fall, has met with the cross country coach and will be joining the team for summer training in August.

DeYoung also combined his college experience at SCCC with work experience at Fairview Lake YMCA Camp.

“Transition was exciting,” DeYoung said. “SCCC really gave me preparation for what was about to happen. Advice I would give to high school students is County is a great choice. If there is any doubt of major or plan, start there. SCCC had great staff who will help guide you to your success. I went in wanting to study criminal and am leaving not criminal. Make those decisions for a cheaper price. Take the time at County to think and plan.”

Sussex County Community College's slogan is, “Start here, go anywhere.” DeYoung, Diaz and Petrone epitomize how SCCC can be a place to start, no matter what age, and a place from which to graduate, when you're ready. The professors, guidance counselors and faculty at SCCC are there to help students find their particular future.

For further information about Sussex County Community College and to register for fall classes, visit <URL destination="http://sussex.edu/ ">sussex.edu/





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