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• Groundskeeper at Cuyamaca College earns her degree—after 14 years
• Grossmont honors famous alumni, kicks off 50th anniversary

• Former high school drop-out gradautes with honors


June 4, 2011 (El Cajon) – Of the more than 2,100 students who received their degrees or certificates from East County’s two community colleges this week, few have worked so hard and so long for that sheepskin as Patty Tackett.


A groundskeeper at Cuyamaca College for 14 years, Tackett began taking ornamental horticulture classes in 1997 to learn more about her work. Mostly taking one class a semester, it took her until 2001 to earn enough credits for a certificate of achievement in landscape design and technology and irrigation technology. That done, she decided to continue on to earn her associate in science degree.


It was slow going for someone who had been out of school for more than a quarter century. But Tackett persevered. When her name was called to collect her diploma along with 450 associate degree graduates and 129 certificate recipients at Thursday’s commencement ceremony at Cuyamaca College, the honors graduate had her own cheering section among the faculty.


“It took me a long time to get there, but my instructors were so encouraging all those years,” the 57-year-old Spring Valley resident said. “It was kind of overwhelming to hear them cheering.”


Tackett, who previously worked 20 years in retail management, came to Cuyamaca when she returned to the work after taking off for five years to be with her two children.


“I didn’t know very much when people who saw me working started asking me questions about the trees and irrigation,” she said. “I figured I’d better learn and since Cuyamaca has such a great ornamental horticulture program, it seemed like the thing to do. I found I really liked it and from there, just kept going.”


She chuckles when asked if she thought it would take as long as it did.


“I just told people I was on the 20-year plan,” said Tackett, who started a landscape consulting business about eight years ago for residential properties.


Tackett has used her landscaping and irrigation knowledge to design and retrofit areas around the verdant campus to make the landscaping more water-efficient. She said she is now looking into enrolling in the ornamental horticulture program’s new sustainable landscaping program.

Valedictory speech


Another standout student at Cuyamaca’s 33rd commencement was East County native Tyler Uhlig, who graduated with a 4.0 grade point average and earned the honor of giving the valedictory speech. A mid-year graduate who is currently attending San Diego State University pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Uhlig plans to eventually earn a post-graduate degree in human factors or ergonomics.


He spoke glowingly of psychology instructor Steve Weinert, who sparked his interest in psychology. He also compared his student experiences at Cuyamaca and SDSU.


“At a big university, you almost never see a single mom getting her degree. You almost never see someone who may be twice my age taking classes in subjects they’re truly interested in just for the knowledge,” he said. “Here the goal is not simply get you out as quickly as possible, but rather to groom a group such as ourselves to be able to make more educated choices in the future.”


Cindy L. Miles, chancellor of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District, reminded graduates that studies show that their degree or certificate means their income will double in their lifetime.


“You made it!” she told the graduates. “I promise you that you won’t regret all the effort you’ve made to get here.”


Giving the keynote speech at Cuyamaca was Scott Himelstein, president of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors, which sets policy and provides guidance for the state’s system of 112 community colleges. Currently the director of the Center for Education Policy and Law at the University of San Diego, Himelstein was the former deputy secretary and acting secretary of education for the state of California from 2006 to2007.


Himelstein referred to a commencement speech that Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs gave in 2005 at Stanford University. Himelstein talked about Jobs’ tumultuous early years with Apple, including the time he was fired as head of Apple’s Macintosh division.


“Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick,” Himelstein said. “Don’t lose faith. Jobs said the thing that kept him going was that he loved what he did. Now you Cuyamaca College graduates need to find what it is you love and go out and do it.”


Grossmont’s 50th anniversary


In honoring its 1,075 students receiving associate’s degrees and 428 receiving certificates of achievement Wednesday, Grossmont College also launched its yearlong 50th anniversary celebration. College president Sunny Cooke introduced five alumni guests, each representing one of the college’s first five decades. From the decade of the 1960s was Ron Oliver, director of market development with Edco Disposal, who wore a tie-dyed T-shirt and flashed peace symbols to an appreciative audience.


The other alumni were 2009 graduate Jose Molina Serrano, a musician and songwriter; 1999 graduate Sheila Erickson, a nurse manager at Sharp Grossmont Hospital; Brad Daluiso, a student in the 1980s who went on to play for the National Football League for 10 seasons; and Clara Harris, founder of Heartland Human Relations Association, who attended the college in 1979.


“This day is special because it isn’t only our 50th commencement, it is also our birthday,” Cooke said. “From humble beginnings, this college has grown into a vibrant educational institution which is a vital member of the San Diego community.


This year’s student speaker at Grossmont’s commencement was Timothy Snowball, an honor graduate earning associate degrees in political science and University Studies despite having dropped out of high school. Diagnosed with severe depression and social anxiety disorder, he left West Hills High School in Santee during his senior year and began working, but he never lost his love for learning.


After several years, he enrolled in a political science class at Grossmont College in 2008 and in the ensuing three years, his grade point average earned him placements on both the president’s and vice president’s lists and membership in the community college honor society, Phi Theta Kappa. With a 3.92 GPA, he has decided to attend University of California, Berkeley and aspires to either teach at the community college or university level or to pursue law.


The 28-year-old La Mesa resident said the first “A” he earned at Grossmont forever changed his perception about himself. “For the first time in my life, I felt hope for the future,” he said. “From that point on, I devoted myself to Grossmont with a determination and drive that I have never before experienced. With each successful grade and semester my self-doubt was replaced by self-confidence.”

The keynote speaker at Grossmont’s commencement was college alumna and former adjunct math and science instructor Christina Deckard, now an internationally recognized expert in laser technology who is employed as a senior scientist at the Space and Naval Warfare, or SPAWAR, Systems Center Pacific in San Diego.


A 1978 graduate of Granite Hills High School in El Cajon, Deckard had hopes of becoming a physicist, but gender bias prevented her from enrolling in physics classes at a four-year university. She returned home to El Cajon and enrolled at Grossmont College, where she earned an “A” in her first physics class as the only female student. From Grossmont, she transferred to San Diego State University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in physics, as well as a second graduate degree in math.


In becoming an adjunct instructor at Grossmont, where she taught from 1989 to 1998, Deckard followed the example of her father, Frank Seeley, who taught at Grossmont in the 1970s and ‘80s.


Governing Board President Bill Garrett spoke of the transformative power of advancing one’s education at East County’s only public institutions of higher education.


“Your lives have been transformed,” he said. “Perhaps that transformation was from your mind being opened to new ideas or you learned something about a different culture. However you were transformed, I hope it doesn’t stop here. Keep on learning. It’s a lifelong process.”



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