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Making a Difference: Staff and Students Surprise a Quiet Hero

John Sweeney, 82, shows up at the Northeast Regional Center of Community College of Philadelphia two hours before his class starts so he can review his studies and relax his lungs.

He has emphysema and every breath now is a struggle. With the help of his portable oxygen tank, Sweeney soldiers through his classes, relishing each lesson. He takes one class a semester and plans to continue until he’s earned enough credits for an associate’s degree. “Either that, or until the Man Upstairs calls me,” Sweeney said with a grin.

A leader who sets an example, Sweeney was stunned recently to learn that his tenacity and determination had made him a hero in the eyes of many fellow students and staff.

They surprised him with a brief ceremony and a certificate of recognition before algebra class on December 5. Classmates signed a card congratulating him and joined faculty and staff who gathered around him for a photo.

“John Sweeney provides unwavering inspiration to the Northeast Regional Center faculty, students and staff, said Kathleen M. Mulray, director of the Center, who created a special certificate to recognize his rich contributions to morale and a vibrant learning culture.

Math instructor, Bob Cunningham said Sweeney stands out, for so many reasons.

“While I often have a student come early to class, few if any come as early as John Sweeney. John usually comes in around 7:30 a.m. for my 9 a.m. Math 118 Intermediate Algebra class. It is true that John is an excellent student, but more importantly he is a role model for his fellow students.”

Sweeney was thunderstruck. “If I had known (about the award ceremony), I would have called out sick,” he said chuckling. “It was a great honor.”

Sweeney, who earned his GED in the 1950s, retired in 1995 from the job of assistant manager at a supermarket. He’s taken classes off-and-on for more than a decade. He took advantage of the College’s admissions program that enables senior citizens to take a course for credit each semester after paying a $153 registration fee and meeting other requirements.

When asked why he continues to go to school, Sweeney replied, “To keep my mind open, so I don’t end up losing it. It’s very important that everyone should learn. They should never stop learning.”