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804 students graduate from York Tech tonight

By many accounts, Ricardo Benlizar was doing fine.

He had a good job at Sprint's Charlotte call center, had been selected for management training and was running his own team.

But Benlizar realized it wasn't enough. Call center work was stressful, he said, and the same every day. He wanted to challenge himself. He wanted to make a difference.

"I wanted to get going in the right direction," he said. "Be a man."

He got involved with the Rock Hill chapter of the NAACP, where he's now a youth advisor. He joined the security ministry at his church, Freedom Temple Ministries. And he went back for the education he had put off after high school.

Tonight, Benlizar will walk off with an associate's degree in accounting from York Technical College -- and a new world of possibilities.

The 25-year-old is one of the 804 students receiving academic awards at York Tech's graduation ceremony at Winthrop Coliseum tonight. Of those, 446 earned associate's degrees, the other 358 are graduating with diplomas or certificates from specialized programs.

The school has been handing out record awards for the last few years. It has been the fastest-growing school in the state for the last five years, said Mark Ulseth, associate vice president for academic and student affairs -- growing 52 percent.

"We used to have a theater on (Winthrop University's) campus where we held graduations," he said. "Now we've grown to need the Coliseum."

When Benlizar, who is speaking at the ceremony, decided to go back to school, it was with the help of the S.C. Lottery Tuition Assistance Program. The program has helped about 285,000 technical college students since it was started in 2002 -- 1,400 York Tech students last fall alone.

Benlizar is now for advocate of the program he credits with making possible his degree, attending events and a January rally at the Statehouse.

Benlizar, who also works full-time at CitiFinancial in Fort Mill, isn't sure where his new diploma will take him. He wants to combine his passion for business with developing new leaders and giving back to the community. He also wants to get his bachelor's and then master's degrees and plans to head back to school in 2011.

He's torn about whether he will stay in Rock Hill. He grew up here. He's got his involvement with the church and the NAACP, where he's a mentor and puts on leadership and goal-setting workshops for high school-age kids. He's the treasurer for Republican Marvin Rogers' campaign for the state house seat for District 49 and has been involved in Rogers' work to start a business incubator in the city. He could go to Winthrop, and his sister lives here.

But the rest of Benlizar's family is in the Washington, D.C., suburbs of Maryland, where connections could open up other possibilities.

Benlizar, who confesses he was lazy as a younger man, cites many people around him as inspiration for where he is today -- his mother, a church pastor, the kids he works with, and Ivan Lowe, the York Tech instructor and mentor who Benlizar says saved him.

"He saw something in me when I didn't even see it myself," said Benlizar.

But earning the degree he'll be handed tonight is what convinced Benlizar that he can do anything.

"I showed myself that I can finish something, I can apply myself," he said. "No matter where I go, I'm going to make sure I get through."

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