After he graduated from a Maryland high school, Rickey Murray had a number of opportunities awaiting him at a number of four-year institutions.
He eyed the University of South Florida, applied to Florida International University and considered Virginia Commonwealth, where a friend assured him he would have a good time.
Murray, however, didn't think he was ready. With a father in jail and a mother battling drug addiction, he opted to move forward with a different plan: Hillsborough Community College.
"It's the best decision I ever made," Murray tells anyone willing to listen.
Too often, we expect young people to embark on a linear lifepath so straight and narrow it never allows for any deviation. Earn your diploma, go to a four-year university -- like your mom and dad -- and then get a job.
Except some moms and dads didn't go to a university, and some students may not be ready to leap onto a campus with 40,000 students, auditorium classes and "fit in or fall out" social demands. To paraphrase Oasis, the road can be winding and the lights can be blinding.
HCC sits at the intersection of divergent paths. Former HCC professor Liana Fernandez Fox shared the improbable rise of former HCC students Margarita Gonzalez and Shari Zamani, and then Murray and HCC honored alumnus Eric Bailey put exclamation points on the night's theme.
Whether it's a student like Murray who needed to slow life's pace or an underachieving high school student like Bailey, the institution serves as a sort of GPS for its students, lending direction to those whose road may have already gone through a series of twist and turns.
Sure, it draws a fair share of driven honor students and purposeful academics who have life all mapped out. More power to those folks. But in some cases, HCC provides a directional re-route for people who missed the turn, folks looking to change directions and the young and not-so-young who need to find their way home.
Both Murray and Bailey — one a future success, the other a current success — shared their stories at the recent HCC Presidential Showcase, which launched a year-long celebration of the college's 50th year.
Murray had to overcome a lot of challenges in his upbringing, but spoke of them with untainted innocence. He remains awed by what life has to offer and the role the college played in opening new doors.
During his time at HCC, Murray worked as supplemental chemistry instructor, mentored his peers and volunteered at St. Joseph's Hospital. Thanks to the influence of chemistry professor Brenda Alanis, Murray shifted his focus from nursing to medicine. Now he's enrolled in the University of South Florida and he has earned a spot in a prestigious Moffitt Cancer Center research program.
Bailey demurred, saying while Murray has made all the right decisions as a young man, he made all the wrong decisions. Still, he managed to graduate from Leto High School and eventually landed at HCC, where he literally grew more accountable.
He moved on to USF, earned a degree in accounting and now stands as co-founder and principal at CapTrust Advisors in Tampa. He also serves on a number of boards including chairing the United Way Suncoast Board.
Such stories and the realization HCC shines as a community crown jewel inspired supporters to ignite the HCC Foundation's capital campaign with nearly $5 million in donations, including a $1 million gift from Drs. Kiran C. and Pallavi Patel to the HCC for the Allied Health Building and scholarships for students enrolled in health science programs.
The donors know its workforce development programs will prove vital as the county continues to grow. They know with 160 fields of study, the college offers opportunity to anyone willing to put in the work.
They know the school's enrollment of 44,000 -- a third of whom are first-generation college students -- need a boost.
As a community, we can't just tell kids they can be anything they want to be. We have to light the path of success, help them pull through when they veer into dark passages, and never let them lose sight of the awards that await those who persevere.
When we lend support to institutions like HCC, we can be the ones that save them.
That's all I'm saying.