LANGLEY - Mel Irish wanted to live closer to his father in Florida. But he worried about the hurricanes.
So he and his wife packed their bags, left Rochester, N.Y., and headed to Aiken - usually out of the pathway of any storm strong enough to get a name.
On Friday, two years to the day he moved, Mr. Irish walked across a stage wearing a blue gown at Aiken Technical College as the school's student of the year.
Mr. Irish accepted degrees in four areas as more than 200 other students also were granted degrees, diplomas or certificates.
The 49-year-old was honored by the school because he tutored many students and because of his 4.0 grade point average.
He was awarded associate degrees in networking, database administration, programming and Web development.
Mr. Irish said he could have taken classes over the Web but wanted classroom interaction.
He said he has made some great friends while attending classes at Aiken Tech.
"You learn a lot by listening to other people's questions," he said."I was really surprised when I got the award."
Mr. Irish, who was in the Army from 1972 to 1993, said he learned to love computers and the Internet during his military service. He went to school on the G.I. Bill.
After graduation, he will become an adjunct faculty member at Aiken Tech while he pursues clients for his Web design business.
At the commencement ceremonies inside the Gregg-Graniteville Student Activities Center, a U.S. Department of Commerce official told graduates they have the opportunity to play a pivotal role in society because of their accomplishments.
"As the class of 2002 contemplates the kind of America you want to live in, I want you to look at how ordinary Americans have rallied together against terrorism since September 11," said Steve Nesmith, the deputy assistant secretary for Congressional Liaison and Public Affairs with the Economic Development Administration inside the Commerce Department.
Mr. Nesmith told graduates they have an obligation to their fellow man to provide community service and tolerance.
He also told the graduates to believe in themselves.
"You are the best of what this country has to offer," Mr. Nesmith said.
Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or firstname.lastname@example.org.