When Kimberly Bratnik was young, her parents were told she would never graduate from high school, let alone attend college.
"We were told we should keep her in special ed," said Louise Bratnik of Beachwood, who greeted her daughter with a hug after Kimberly and more than 400 others students had their associate's degrees conferred upon them at Ocean County College's commencement exercises last night on the campus in Toms River.
Bratnik, a 21-year-old Beachwood resident who has cerebral palsy, sat in the front row in her wheelchair with her service dog, Orson, by her side as the commencement speakers congratulated the graduates and urged them to go forward and make the most of their lives.
Bob Martin, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, told the graduates that the most important thing they can do is get involved in the world around them, through volunteer work in their communities.
"Get involved. Be relevant," said Martin, the keynote speaker. More importantly, he said, you should always do the right thing. "If you're going to be a parent, be a damn good parent. If you're going to be a friend, be a damn good friend."
He urged the graduates to be prepared for hard work and not be afraid to take chances.
"There was a piece in the Washington Post recently that listed the 10 things you won't hear at a commencement speech," he said. "One: In life, no one rewards you for performing mundane tasks."
"The second is, 'There is a microscopically thin line between being brilliantly creative and acting like the most gigantic idiot on earth. So what the hell, leap.' "
"Listen. Act. Get involved," Martin said. "And when you do, do the right thing."
Joseph Hathaway, the student speaker, urged his classmates to dream big and keep dreaming until they achieve every dream they have.
"As a student with a disability, college was difficult," said Hathaway, who has Asperger's Syndrome. But the Barnegat resident who has become a motivational speaker, in addition to working on his degree, said he has never allowed his disability to hold him back.
"Everyone in the world has challenges," he said. "We focus on what we can't do instead of what we can." He urged his classmates to focus on their abilities and strengths and make the most of them.
Kimberly Bratnik's parents agree with that attitude.
"In fourth grade we had to fight to get her out of special ed," said her father, Dennis. But they insisted and they fought for it, and it was the best thing they could have done, Louise said.
"They said she would never go to college, but she not only graduated, she graduated with honors, and is going on for her bachelor's degree," said Louise, who assisted Kimberly, helping her study—"Everything has to be read to her," she said—and providing transportation for Kimberly and Orson, who assists Kimberly in a variety of ways, from taking off her coat to opening doors.
"I wish everybody in her elementary school were here to see this," Dennis said.
Kimberly, who was congratulated by a steady stream of classmates and well-wishers, said she's planning to seek a degree in sociology with the goal of becoming a social worker and child adoption advocate through the Kean at Ocean program.
"She worked really hard," Louise said.
The Kean at Ocean program was lauded by both Ocean County College president Jon Larsen and by Kean University President Dawood Farahi, who presented the story of Kelly Rabkin, who graduated from OCC in 2010 and just recently graduated from Kean. An art major, she has won international and national graphic art competitions.
"You could lose your job someday. You could lose your house," Farahi said. "But you will never lose what you are receiving today: your degree."
Linda Clark of Jackson, a friend of Kimberly, completed her associate's degree 30 years after she started it at Brookdale.
"Life intervened," she said, and she never completed her degree. A few years ago, however, she became unemployed after working for most of her life with children with disabilities, and she decided to go back to college to improve her job prospects. It's had an impact already -- she has a job interview on Tuesday.
Connie Ventura of Jackson, who also completed her associate's degree after 30 years, said she made it a priority because for so long, she had betting putting everything else first.
"It was time to do something for myself," she said. "It's been fun. It's been a wonderful experience."