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West Valley City • Dut Aguer Bior fled his war-torn homeland of Sudan around age 6, give or take a year. He's not sure when, exactly, because he lost his family and grew up in a Kenyan refugee camp, where he completed high school and decamped for the United States.
After a couple of years making friends and getting settled in the Salt Lake Valley, now home to many other "lost boys," the young man enrolled at Salt Lake Community College.
Bior completed an associate degree in computer information systems this past semester and was honored Thursday along with 4,185 other SLCC graduates, the largest graduating class in the college's 64-year history. SLCC's commencement has gotten so big that officials last year moved it to Maverik Center, which Thursday was packed with four generations of well-wishers, many texting congratulatory messages to a linear board under the upper bowl. Some 3,700 are receiving associate degrees, making SLCC one of the nation's most productive two-year colleges.
The school has the state's most diverse and largest student body.
"Community college has been my home. The people, the professors, the students have made it the best two years of my life," said Bior, who guesses he is 25, but will never know for sure.
Thursday's keynote speaker, U.S. soccer star Abby Wambach, told graduates and their families assembled at the crowded and noisy Maverik Center about how she broke her leg in a match against Brazil in the weeks before the 2008 Olympics.
"No matter what happens, it's about how you handle it. Those are the moments when you can look into the mirror and find out who you are. If you don't like what you see, you can change it," said Wambach over the din of the audience.
One of the most prolific scorers in the history of women's international soccer, Wambach was a key player in the U.S. gold medal run at the 2004 Olympics and the team's 2011 World Cup finals appearance. She will be back in Utah next month for a final international match before the Summer Games in London.
Student President Mike Bird reminded fellow graduates that the best lessons in life arise from failure and the best learning experiences come from other students.
Many of the new SLCC graduates, such as Bior, Anne-Judith Valcin-Sluga and Samuel Ortiz all honored Thursday as Graduates of Excellence intend to go on to universities.
Valcin-Sluga, 21, immigrated from Haiti as a teenager and completed high school at Salt Lake's Academy of Math, Engineering and Science, then went straight to SLCC, where both her parents had studied. She credited the college's staff for helping her achieve success.
"They are always willing to help, they are very outgoing. Anything you need you can go to them and ask," she said. "If they don't know the answer, they can guide you to the person who does know the answer."
She earned her associate degree in general studies and plans to join the Air Force before returning to school to study mechanical engineering.
Ortiz, a first-generation college student, will transfer to the University of Utah in the fall to study sociology and then go into social work.
"Honestly, I didn't always imagine going to college. I didn't feel comfortable nor that I would be successful at a university. Community college seemed a more intimate environment. I tried it out, and it worked wonderfully for me," said Ortiz, 23, a 2007 graduate of Olympus High School.
In college, he mentored other first-generation students through the TRIO program, worked as an assistant in the office of student services and pursued opportunities for civic engagement.
"I didn't start out as a student who reached out and got involved, but I turned into that kind of student," Ortiz said.
Bior also got into student leadership. He launched a group to secure educational opportunities for orphaned children in developing nations. It's called the Student Orphan Aid Program.
"I have really learned a lot. I got inspired," he said. "It helped me see what I wanted to do outside of school."