BLOOMINGTON — A 35-year-old mother of two who received her associate's degree from Heartland Community College on Friday told her fellow students to “live your dream.”

Sara Keene was chosen as the student speaker for Friday's commencement at U.S. Cellular Coliseum after receiving an honorable mention in the Paul Simon Student Essay Contest sponsored by the Illinois Community College Trustees Association.

Relating her own story of dreams delayed, she said, “Do not dream about your life, but instead live your dream.”

Keene was among about 240 graduates taking part in Heartland's 25th annual commencement out of 878 who earned degrees or certificates in the past year.

Chris Downing, executive director of development, said it was the largest class to walk at graduation in the school's history.

Loud cheers and shouts of “I love you,” echoed down from stands where family and friends watched the graduates cross the stage.

In welcoming those friends and family, board chairman Gregg Chadwick said, “I trust that one of the lessons our graduates learned well before they began their first class here is that the love, support and encouragement they receive from you have been essential to their success."

About 12,000 students have received degrees and certificates since the college was founded in 1990, noted Chadwick.

“Your college education is one of the wisest investments you could have made in preparing for a life of uncertainty,” Chadwick told the graduates. “I hope that Heartland has been a place of diverse perspectives where you have been encouraged to investigate your curiosities.”

President Rob Widmer said, "Today does not signify an end but, more so, a new path on your journey."

Alexis Altshue of Bloomington, who graduated with a degree in business management and decorated her mortarboard with the words “I did it,” said the best part of attending Heartland was “making great friends.” She intends to pursue a bachelor's degree at Illinois State University or the University of Illinois.

For Keene, graduating from Heartland was not only a way to improve her life but also a way to demonstrate to her children “the value and importance of a college education,” she said.

On a typical weeknight, Keene did her math homework while also helping her daughters with their assignments. She learned how to be a successful student as well as a supportive mother, spouse and valued employee.

“No matter what the fairy tales tell us, most dreams don't come with a magical fairy godmother who does the work for you with her wand,” said Keene.

The next step for Keene is Illinois State University, where she has been accepted in the renewable energy program.

This was the first time Heartland has had its commencement at the Coliseum and the first time it has streamed the ceremony on Facebook live.

Robert Vassallo of Carlock, who received a degree in digital media, wore a GoPro mini-camera on his forehead beneath his mortarboard to provide a “first-person perspective” of the ceremony for future use by the college.

This year's recipient of the Distinguished Alumni Award was Cassie Kuizin, a 2016 graduate who played softball at Heartland who is currently a student athlete at Taylor University in Upland, Ind.

Follow Lenore Sobota on Twitter: @pg_sobota

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