NORMAL — Heartland Community College has seen plenty of changes while serving Central Illinois for the last 25 years. The campus has evolved and enrollment numbers have skyrocketed, but the pride of graduates on commencement day remains the same.

Kelly Risinger of Danvers has witnessed many of those changes while taking classes at Heartland since 1998. On Saturday, she received her associate's degree in science and plans to study nursing at Illinois State University in the fall.

“The college has grown so much in my time here,” said Risinger. “My first classes were in the Towanda Plaza. It’s interesting to see how the campus and programs have expanded.”

More than 800 students graduated from HCC this semester and nearly 175 grads attended the commencement ceremony in the Fitness and Recreation Center. Students received associate degrees in arts and science, along with other certifications and recognition.

Risinger, a single mom of three, said she wanted to walk at commencement because of all the effort she put in over the years. A gold sash and cords were draped over her black gown, signifying membership of Phi Theta Kappa, HCC’s honor society.

“I’m closing a chapter of my life and finishing what I’ve always wanted to do since high school,” said Risinger.

Dylan Cerda of Chenoa also plans to move to ISU after HCC to study business administration. At 19, Cerda said it was easy to make new friends during his two years at Heartland.

"I learned a lot about teamwork in my classes here," he said. "Everyone was super friendly."

At the ceremony, HCC President Rob Widmer discussed the many changes the college has seen before introducing the student speaker, Laura Phillips.

“When I came to Heartland, I felt a bit like Frodo Baggins from J.R.R Tolkien’s 'Lord of the Rings,'” said Phillips. “I experienced very little change the first 18 years of my life and I thought leaving for college would be scary. I was comfortable in my little Shire.”

Phillips thanked her HCC professors and told her fellow graduates that while they “may not see our completed journeys, they wanted to help us however possible.”

“Heartland has been like the Fellowship in Lord of the Rings,” said Phillips. “Frodo wouldn't succeed without the Fellowship and we wouldn't be where we are today without Heartland.”

Phillips will pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Illinois State University and plans to earn a master’s degree in school counseling.

Adam and Justin Bellas were awarded the Distinguished Alumni Award. The brothers are founders of Bellas Landscaping in Bloomington, a business they started while attending HCC in 2003.

“Never forgetting their roots, the Bellas brothers often employ Heartland students for seasonal help and internships and offer support to those students while they juggle work and academics,” said Widmer.

Adam Bellas said he and Justin are “proud to have planted roots in the community.”

“Our business is a lot like this campus. As Heartland has grown and added buildings, so have we,” said Adam Bellas. “Heartland is the place that brings everyone together to improve lives and futures.”

Follow Julia Evelsizer on Twitter: @pg_evelsizer

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