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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
An unidentified student stands to look for family members during Salt Lake Community College's commencement ceremony at the Maverik Center in West Valley City on Friday, May 6, 2016.

WEST VALLEY CITY — Dressed in her cap and gown, new Salt Lake Community College graduate Ana Patricia Pastor Butt posed outside the Maverik Center for photos surrounded by her children and closest friends.

“I feel happy. I made it,” she said.

The Sandy woman worked hard over the past 10 months, taking 18 credit hours each semester to receive her associate degree in health science.

“All of this is for them,” she said pointing to her children. “This is an example for them to be graduated and be better than their mom.”

Butt, who plans to attend nursing school in the upcoming months, said her educational success, even with English as her second language, raises the expectation for her American-born children to excel even more.

Butt, who moved to the United States from Peru 15 years ago, was one of many SLCC graduates with ties outside the U.S. Friday’s graduates came from 74 countries and ranged in age from 16 to 67.

Salt Lake Community College celebrated its second-largest graduating class in history, awarding 4,125 certificates. Among this year's graduating class, 894 students earned certificates or diplomas and 3,928 earned associate degrees. Seventy-five percent of the graduates have plans to go on to receive bachelor's degrees at four-year colleges, according to SLCC officials.

The college boasts that it is among the top 10 colleges in the country for total associate degrees awarded.

More than 61,000 students attend SLCC each year, according to the college. It has 1,000 continuing education sites located throughout the Salt Lake Valley and is the sole provider of applied technology courses in the Salt Lake area.

Salt Lake Community College awarded humanitarian and community leader Barbara Lindquist Tanner and Sandy Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Stanley B. Parrish with honorary doctorate degrees. Engineer Marisa Dawn Egbert and chef/restaurateur Gerard Ford Craft were named distinguished alumni.

Gretchen McClain, former chief director for NASA’s International Space Station, addressed the 2016 graduates, telling them "the sky is the limit." McClain has more than 25 years of global experience in both Fortune 500 corporations and government service, including serving as founding CEO of Xylem Inc.

McClain commented on the mental toughness of SLCC students, calling them “trailblazers” with determination to succeed. She related her own story as a University of Utah graduate competing with others from Ivy League schools early in her career. According to McClain, getting her position at NASA was “no easy task."

“What I’m talking about is more than perseverance. It’s about having a deep gut belief in everything you are capable of … and the courage to not let any naysayers or your nerves get in your way,” McClain told the graduates.

She encouraged the students to pursue careers that are hard to get and quiet their internal doubts.

"I believe it’s the tension between the confidence and the butterflies in our stomach that keeps us moving forward. It’s that 'stretch feeling' that gives us the energy and focus to accomplish feats we never thought possible," McClain said.

Student Association President Carlos Moreno, who said he once begged for food as a child in Venezuela, also spoke about the importance of true perseverance.

“I see perseverance everywhere,” he said as he looked over the crowd.

Moreno said through overcoming financial, family, and health challenges, he has seen his fellow classmates and graduates become the best versions of themselves.

“Today, all of you exemplify what makes the difference between success and failure,” he said.

SLCC is Utah’s leading provider of workforce development programs, according to the college. Some of the school's most popular majors include business, nursing, and computer science and information systems.

SLCC's eighth president, Deneece Huftalin, spoke positively of how education helps overcome obstacles, telling the story of one graduate who used her studies in psychology to work through her own doubts while she was learning English.

Huftalin encouraged the graduates to celebrate the changes they have seen in their lives that have come because of challenges. "Every good story has an arc," she said.

"And then there’s a reconciliation, a triumph, an understanding that leads to a new sense of self. A realization that they belong here, that they’ve changed, that they are smart, that their future is bright, that they have learned and grown and become something they did not think possible."

Email: ahobbs@deseretnews.com