Wintrust Arena was awash in a sea of red, green, brown and purple academic regalia Sunday afternoon as City Colleges of Chicago celebrated in-person commencements for the first time in two years, for 1,700 graduates.

In the first of two ceremonies, graduates from the classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022 from Malcolm X College, Harry S. Truman College, Wilbur Wright College and Olive-Harvey College were cheered on by loved ones. School faculty and leaders, the valedictorian of Olive-Harvey and, in a virtual message, Mayor Lori Lightfoot passed on words of inspiration before the graduates walked across the stage.

Mark Potter, the provost and chief academic officer of the City Colleges of Chicago, opened the ceremony with a message about resiliency to those proudly donning their caps and gowns.

“Each of you is unique, but we all share something in common,” Potter said. “You’ve navigated a global pandemic, remote instruction, virtual student services and new technologies, all while managing your complex lives.”

More than 60% of the 2022 graduating class are the first in their families to attend college. More than three-quarters are Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship semifinalists, a highly selective scholarship for the nation’s top community college students seeking to complete their bachelor’s degrees at four-year colleges or universities. Roughly a quarter of the graduating class were former Chicago Public Schools students who earned free tuition and books.

“The pandemic may have changed your plans, but you battled through it,” Potter said. “You proved you can adapt and thrive.”

Among the graduates who persevered during the pandemic was Kristen Medrano, the valedictorian of Olive-Harvey and the graduation speaker.

Medrano started college in August 2020 to pursue her associate degree in child development, preschool education, a venture, Medrano said terrified her.

As a mother of five children ages 3, 6, 13, 15 and 17, she had to balance schoolwork for herself and her children — who were learning remotely at the time — sit on various parent committees and coach youth basketball and T-ball. Medrano said that some nights she would fall asleep just after 2 a.m. and be ready to start the day at 5:30 a.m.

“I don’t come from a family where everyone has gone to college or everyone has taken the journey to even finish high school, so just being able to see me start this adventure while being a mom and juggling other duties makes my children excited and they’re supportive,” Medrano said.

Medrano’s advice for those starting college is to accept that there will be challenges along the way, but there is no obstacle too big to overcome.

“As the valedictorian for Olive-Harvey this year, which I never imagined, everybody kept saying be positive, when you speak, be positive,” Medrano said. “But I think it’s about being honest and truthful about our journeys.”

When Medrano stepped onstage to address her fellow graduates, she shared her personal story. She introduced herself as a 35-year-old Mexican American mother of five who faced some “bumps on the road.”

Medrano said being a parent, facing some financial issues and having a fear that she was too old to earn a degree held her back. While she was pursuing her associate degree, she admitted to feeling tired, but a professor pushed her to keep going, the same advice she gave to the class of 2022.

“Fight for what makes you happy about the world,” Medrano said. “Find it, insist on it, go back for it.”

Medrano’s goal is to become an early childhood educator and a professor at Olive-Harvey.

Jeffery Dillard, a professor at Olive-Harvey, referenced the 1988 song “Don’t Believe the Hype” by hip-hop group Public Enemy.

“Graduates, you must find your own truth,” Dillard said. ” For many of you, if you had listened to all of the authorities, the pundits and the haters, you would not be graduating today. You did not believe the hype.”

At the end of the ceremony, parents, extended family and friends cheered the graduates with applause, horns and clackers.

The second half of the ceremony took place Sunday evening to celebrate the graduates of Richard J. Daley College, Harold Washington College and Kennedy-King College.

Michael Nwaigbo, who is the valedictorian of Kennedy-King College, earned a Star Scholarship after graduating from Hyde Park Academy.

Nwaigbo earned his associate of science degree in 2021 and said he was elated to finally celebrate in person with his peers.

“I thought we wouldn’t have a graduation at all,” he said.

Nwaigbo is currently working in the food industry to save up to go back to school for civil engineering.

His goal is to achieve a doctoral degree in engineering at 24 so he can go on to establish a construction firm that provides affordable housing to low-income families in the Chicago area.

“I want to help people to create their own spaces where they can create new experiences and memories,” Nwaigbo said. “There is a difference between having a house and having a home.”

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