June 22, 2015 — Heriberto de La Cruz knows exactly how Le Moyne College’s graduation ceremony is run — he has been setting up the chairs, tables and stage for 19 years as a dedicated employee of the university. But this year, at the age of 61, de la Cruz joined his classmates in walking across the stage to accept his diploma, earning his degree in sociology with a concentration in criminology. It was 19 years in the making.
When de la Cruz arrived in the United States from the Dominican Republic, he was just 17. He planned on playing professional baseball, first for the Montreal Expos and then for the Philadelphia Phillies. But when an injury ended his career at the age of 22, de la Cruz reached a crossroads. “I had tunnel vision, and I wasn't prepared for anything but playing baseball,” he said. “I had no career, no education, nothing. I was devastated."
De la Cruz worked at Auburn Steel for 12 years and earned his high school diploma before taking a job at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York. At Le Moyne, he encountered a life-changing opportunity: as part of his employee benefits, he could take classes from Le Moyne at no cost — he simply had to pay for books. "Working at Le Moyne turned out to be the greatest thing that ever happened to me,'' he said.
The road to the degree wasn’t always easy. Some challenges were light-hearted, like taking classes with 20-year-olds that made him feel “like Grandpa,” de la Cruz joked. The other students respected him, however. “They learned from me, and I learned from them,” he said.
Then there was his full-time work schedule: he spent most weekends and nights studying. “I had to because it was hard for me. It didn't come easy," de la Cruz said. The most difficult struggle came when he was diagnosed with cancer — first with colon cancer and then two years later with prostate cancer. He was forced to take some time off from classes during his treatment, but he refused to give up. “I knew I was going to do this no matter what,'' he said. “I just came back stronger … the closer I got to my degree, the more determined I was."
His classmates and associates praise that determination and hard work. “He is dedicated [and] diligent,'' said Pat O’Neill, de la Cruz’s supervisor. That determination finally paid off on May 17 as de la Cruz walked across the stage to cheers and applause. "It's like winning the Super Bowl, or being named an MVP in every sport," he said. "There is just no feeling greater than this.” [Source: Syracuse.com]