Michael Lewis '15, a social work major at Elms College's Off Campus program at Greenfield Community College, will speak to GCC graduates at Commencement this weekend about making learning a lifelong endeavor.

Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis, who will graduate from the Elms College Off Campus program at Greenfield Community College in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in social work, is GCC's 2014 commencement speaker.

Learning is ‘As Essential as Breathing’

One message Michael Lewis ’15 hopes to convey to classmates as commencement speaker for Greenfield Community College on May 31 is that, while the ceremony marks the end of their time at the college, he hopes it is just the beginning of their quest for knowledge.

"I was an orientation leader three or four times, and I told the new students then that they were rock stars for taking this journey," Michael said, adding that in his commencement speech, he's going to tell the now-seniors that "they are now superstars for completing this part of their journey."

And, he added, "I'll tell them, 'Don't stop - pay it forward. Knowledge is to be shared.'"

While Michael graduated from GCC in the fall of 2013 with a liberal arts associate's degree in health science, his own quest was far from over. He originally thought of becoming an occupational therapist, but then what he calls "divine intervention" happened.

A conversation with his GCC advisor, Anna Berry, made him realize that his advocacy work on behalf of veterans and his wealth of community outreach experience was a perfect fit for a career in social work. Michael entered the Elms College Off Campus social work program at GCC to earn his bachelor's degree and will graduate in 2015.

Michael graduated from East Longmeadow High School in 1977 and Wilbraham-Monson Academy in 1978. Personal circumstances derailed his plans to attend the University of Massachusetts on a football scholarship, and he ended up joining the Marine Corps instead.

It would be over 30 years before he would continue his formal education, but his wealth of life experiences over those decades included dark times such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), addiction and homelessness, but also positive ones such as being a counselor, Sunday School teacher, and a father.

Advocate for Fellow Veterans

Having experienced firsthand the difficulties in transitioning from military service to civilian life after he left the Marines in 1986, Michael has worked for years serving as a consultant and advocate for veterans in the Greenfield area.

"It's a big mountain to climb," Michael said of the transition back to civilian life. When the job market dried up, "I knew I'd have to get a degree to succeed, and even an associate's degree isn't enough anymore."

While at GCC he took an active role on campus, teaching a fitness class at lunchtime, putting his experience as a restaurant chef to use at a work study job in campus food service, and participating in the gardening club, among other activities.

Also at GCC, he co-founded the Student-Veteran Network Club, VetNet, to help make the transition to academic life less stressful and more successful for those coming out of military service. The program grew under a grant from the Channing Bete company.

"Colleges from three or four states have called to ask how we started it," he said proudly.

Michael now lives in Brattleboro, Vermont, with his life partner, Judi, who works at the GCC library, where they first met.

"Part of the reason I have worked and lived in different places is that I never want to stop learning," Michael said. "The day you think you know it all and don't need to learn any more, you might as well cover yourself with dirt. You should never stop growing, and you're never, ever, too old to learn."