A sea of Bunker Hill Community College (BHCC) graduates gathered beneath the commencement tent this spring as president Pam Eddinger offered a frank farewell: “While life can be harsh, it is also limitless and ever-renewing….I have learned to hope and believe, from watching you, that tomorrow will be better.”

Among the more than 1,700 graduates listening that day were two women who made the most of City-sponsored routes to college. But that doesn’t mean their paths were easy. Their arrival at this day reflected a grit and commitment that a better tomorrow, and a better Boston, are made of.

Katherine Hernandez

Associate in Sociology

In many ways, being one of eight children has been a gift for Katherine Hernandez. As a tutor for her younger siblings, she came to love the moment she could help a child break through frustration to reach a spark of understanding. She knew she wanted to be in a helping profession someday.

But at the same time, coming from a large family also posed a challenge to those dreams.

Hernandez with several of her younger siblings.

“My mom needs a lot of help with all the kids,” Hernandez said. “She can’t afford a babysitter.”

With the added financial stress of rent and loans, the prospect of college costs grew daunting. Fortunately, the Tuition-Free Community College Plan was able to help Hernandez attend BHCC free of tuition or mandatory fees.

“I wouldn’t be able to go to college if it wasn’t for this program,” she said.

In a typical week, Hernandez woke at 5 a.m. to catch a bus and a train for her 7 a.m. class at BHCC. She finished all her classes in the mornings so she could come back and care for her younger siblings in the afternoon.

An honors student, Hernandez graduated from BHCC with a 3.87 GPA and an academic excellence award from the Department of Sociology. She is interested in pursuing a pre-med track at a 4-year school or entering a job in healthcare.

Mykselsy Charles

Associate in Hotel/Restaurant Management

Mykesly Charles decorated her mortarboard hat with beads and handmade flowers. On the sky-blue background, she glued the words, “God has perfect timing.”

She spent a week on this creation. She spent much longer getting to this day.

Well before she enrolled in BHCC, Mykelsy Charles had spent six years chipping away at a college degree. She took a class or two each semester while taking on a raft of family responsibilities: sponsoring her mother from Haiti, finding affordable housing for them, and acting as breadwinner. Then she learned her college was dropping her biochemistry major.

The hat that Mykelsy Charles decorated and wore for graduation.

“I told myself, ‘School is not for me. I’m trying so hard, but I don’t even know what I’m progressing on,’” she said.

Looking for other opportunities, Charles enrolled in a pre-apprenticeship hospitality training at BEST Hospitality Training Center. As part of the Greater Boston American Apprenticeship Initiative, the program also came with a tantalizing perk: She would earn 12 college credits for her 6-week training, plus tuition support toward the completion of a degree.

She thought: “That’s my shot right there to motivate myself to finish.”

For much of the next two years, Charles worked in hotel housekeeping, while taking classes in every available gap in her work schedule.

“Between work and school, it was really, really hard,” she said. “I would get out of work at 4:30 and had to be at school at 6. I went home at 9 at night to start the day again. Everything was work or school or study.”

“But,” she added, “nothing stops me.”

Charles has become the first person from her family to graduate from college. Her goals are to start a career in hospitality management and to eventually pursue her bachelor’s degree.