ROCKVILLE, MD. -- Fidelis Militante immigrated to America 10 years ago from the Philippines. When she was still in high school, she qualified as a nursing assistant and volunteered at retirement homes here in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.
Last week, she earned a two-year degree from Montgomery College with a perfect 4.0 average, but she's just getting started. Fidelis has big dreams: first to become a registered nurse, then a doctor.
We were privileged to give the graduation address at Montgomery College, and if you've ever doubted the enormous contributions immigrants make to this country, that ceremony would have softened up even the most hard-hearted skeptic. Or should have.
About 950 graduates walked across the stage and at least one-third of them were born outside this country. The colorful flags of their homelands adorned the tent covering the school's athletic field. In fact, the valedictorians from all three of the college's campuses were immigrants.
In addition to Fidelis, there was Pavanjot Singh Guraya, a Sikh from Great Britain headed for Georgetown University and a career in business consulting. And Antony Musembi, who grew up in Kenya, returned to college after a 20-year absence and wants to start a mentorship program for disadvantaged youth.
This time of year, news stories focus on the commencement ceremonies addressed by four-star celebrities at four-year universities. But the vital role played by two-year community colleges often gets overlooked. It's here where many newcomers find the capacity, the confidence and the connections to become fully functioning, highly contributing Americans.
These colleges don't just serve immigrants, however. Many of the graduates had come back to school mid-career, often to join apprenticeship programs sponsored by local businesses and trade unions. One honors graduate was Leroy Friend, who spent 18 years working in the coal mines of West Virginia before learning to become a heating and air-conditioning technician.
One story embodies the spirit of Montgomery College. Student Julian Mitsuo Sadur has a complex ethnic heritage: Russian-Jewish, African-American and Japanese. But as an outfielder on the college baseball team, he modeled himself on the great Japanese player Ichiro Suzuki.
"I try to remain calm," Julian said, "laying back" and letting the game come to him. He said his Latino teammates brought "a different swagger" to the game, even throwing in "some Spanish dance moves" when they made a good play.
Here's a team playing the same game, wearing the same name on their jerseys. Yet each member brings his own style, his own national flair, to the ballfield. That's not just a metaphor about community colleges. It reflects an important dimension of the larger immigrant experience.
A fair number of the graduates we spoke to are undocumented, and many share the experience of Karina Velasco, who crossed the border illegally from Mexico at age 14. Now 25, she graduated from Montgomery College and is completing a degree in social work at the University of Maryland's Baltimore campus.
Karina is temporarily protected from deportation by an executive order signed by President Obama in 2012, but for many years she was legally vulnerable, and her parents still are.
"One night I woke with a nightmare," she recalls. "My mom and dad were being deported: I was crying and crying and called my mother. I was like, 'What am I going to do with my brother here by myself? Who am I going to turn to?'"
Those emotional scars dictated her professional course: She wants to specialize in the particular stresses and traumas plaguing illegal immigrants.
The vibrant world of Montgomery College is presided over by DeRionne Pollard, a one-person symbol of diversity: a gay black woman raising an 8-year-old son with her wife, Robyn Jones.
Pollard's mother died when she was 4, and she was raised by a series of "sister-mothers," including the women of her church on the South Side of Chicago. When she finished eighth grade, the church awarded her a $50 bond; when she graduated high school, she received a modest college scholarship.
Those awards meant more than money: They conveyed a set of values as well. "That idea of service was ingrained," she says. "That idea that we care about you, we're invested in you as a community."
That's exactly what Montgomery College, and schools like it across the country, are doing today. They are investing in people like Fidelis Militante and Pavanjot Singh Guraya, Antony Musembi and Leroy Friend.
And they are making America a better place. Student by student. Course by course. Community by community.