ASHLAND Gray-gowned students filed into the Paramount Arts Center auditorium Monday and left a couple of hours later graduates of Ashland Community and Technical College.

The graduation ceremony recognized more than 700 students who earned associate degrees, diplomas and certificates.

“Since I’m a community college graduate, I know how you feel tonight and how proud you are,” said Kentucky Community and Technical College System President Jay Box in his commencement address.

“What’s next won’t be easy, but this wasn’t easy either,” he said. “What you learned here will help you make good decisions.”

It was a longer journey for some than for others. “Nineteen years for this,” said Mark Justus of Boyd County, who said he had been chasing his education off and one since 2000.

“It feels great. My mother’s really proud of me. I just wish my (late) dad could be here to see it,” he said.

Justus was in ACTC’s heating and air conditioning technology program.

“It feels good because I’m the first one from my family to graduate,” said Derek Elswick of Westwood, who also was in the heating and air conditioning program and who has a job waiting for him.

“It was a struggle to get through but a blessing,” said Stephanie Bays of Greenup. “It definitely makes my life easier, with dependable employment and knowing when I’ll get my paycheck.”

Bays worked two jobs while earning her associate’s degree in business administration and now works full-time for the Army Corps of Engineers, she said.

The graduating student speaker was Joshua Fuller of Huntington and two students, Kailee Ross and Kayleana Simmons, were appointed to the KCTCS all-academic team.

Because some graduates earned more than one degree, diploma or certificate, more than1,800 total credentials were awarded.

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Mike James is The Independent's education reporter. He has covered news in Northeast Kentucky since 1996.