From facing a brother’s death to raising six siblings, Muskegon Community College’s commencement speakers show what it means to be human in the face of heartbreak and adversity

Students graduate from Muskegon Community College. Photo via MCC

When Maxwell Olmstead and Alana Tovar-Pineda take the stage to speak at Muskegon Community College’s 2019 commencement next month, their stories will certainly be ones of academic success—of hard work and dedication, volunteerism and perseverance.

But they are also reminders—to themselves, to other MCC students and to the world at large—of the heights to which humans can rise even in the face of truly turbulent waters. Their stories are ones to be honored—not just because of their high GPAs and a nearly endless list of volunteer and extracurricular activities, but because they’ve shown us all what it means to be human, what it means to never stop giving even when the world is breaking your heart or throwing countless challenges your way.

Olmstead, a Norton Shores native who received a Muskegon Promise Scholarship to attend MCC, lost his 20-year-old twin brother, Marcus Olmstead, this past December, when the beloved Mona Shores graduate and MCC student was shot and killed with a crossbow.

“I want to deliver the commencement address because I feel like my personal anecdotes and my experience at Muskegon Community College can inspire other towards a bright future,” Olmstead said in a press release. “I have faced much adversity in my life and would like to have the opportunity to share how I overcame, and am overcoming, that adversity.”

Olmstead has been heavily involved with college activities, including serving as the president of MCC’s Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society’s Beta Xi Xi Chapter, working as a lifeguard at the college’s Lakeshore Fitness Center, being a tutor, and participating in MCC’s German exchange program with Kaufmännische Schule Stuttgart Nord in Stuttgart.

Maxwell Olmstead. Photo courtesy of Muskegon Community College

“Not only did he represent himself well, but he was a true ambassador for Muskegon Community College,” MCC Instructor Jennifer Jones said. “He was a wonderful frontline person to do presentations about the college and West Michigan to our partner college. He organized joint social events both in Germany, as well as in the United States. Maxwell showcased a level of professionalism that was years beyond his chronological age.”

MCC Chemistry Lab Manager Elizabeth Bolen too issued words of high praise about Olmstead.

“He actively pushes himself to do the best he can and he instills that spirit in fellow students, as well,” she said. “He embodies the spirit of MCC.”

Olmstead is graduating with an Associate in Health Science degree from MCC and plans to pursue a four-year degree in health sciences, with the intent of “supporting and guiding youth in the community,” according to a college statement.

The oldest of seven children growing up in Newaygo, Tovar-Pineda is a student in MCC’s Early College-Newaygo County programwhich allows selected students to extend high school by one year in order to earn both their diploma and up to 62 college credits at no cost to the student. Described in a college press release as a student who “embraces the highest ideals of commitment,” Tovar-Pineda achieved a 3.7 GPA all while helping to raise her six younger siblings, working, and volunteering.

“I don’t know many 18 year-olds who approach life like Alana,” Early College-Newaygo County Dean Cheryl Flannery said. “Alana’s level of professionalism exceeds many adults with whom I interact on a daily basis. She strives to reach her full potential and, despite any adversities she faces, she continues to rise above and considers the challenge a learning experience.”

Alana Tovar-Pineda. Photo courtesy of Muskegon Community College

A member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society at MCC, Tovar-Pineda volunteers weekly for Circles, a community program dedicated to ending poverty permanently in Newaygo County.  She also competes on the Greater Life Pentecostal Church’s Bible Quiz Team and has travelled to Africa on mission trips. She works with two businesses, Lemongrass Spa and Rodan and Fields, selling their products as an independent consultant.

After countless hours working towards her Associate in Science and Arts degree, the student said delivering the commencement address fulfills one of her lifelong dreams.

“I can relate some part of my life to almost every single student,” she said. “Being a student goes far beyond the campus life. The experiences that we’ve had throughout our entire lives are what shape us for future success. MCC is all about starting, staying, and succeeding. Before we can succeed, we must all embrace those experiences that makes us who we are to become.”

It is in part this embrace of life that has landed Tovar-Pineda in the spotlight at MCC.

“Alana is the most positive and professional young lady that I’ve had the honor of working with over the last five years as part of the program,” Flannery said.

Tovar-Pineda now plans to pursue a four-year degree.

The Muskegon Community College’s 91st commencement exercises will be held on Wednesday, May 8 at 7pm inside the L.C. Walker Arena in downtown Muskegon. The event is free and open to the public.

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