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Source:  Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District

Photo:  Viriginia Hall

May 27, 2017 (El Cajon) - Graduates of Grossmont and Cuyamaca colleges have done it again. The two East County colleges will award 4,833 degrees and certificates this year, a 13 percent increase from last year and another record high for the college district.

Much pride and celebration are in store as all eyes turn to commencement ceremonies for 1,581 graduates at Grossmont College June 7 and 656 the following evening at Cuyamaca College. With many students receiving multiple credentials, thousands of graduates will take part in the time-honored processionals.

Both commencements begin at 5:30 p.m. President Nabil Abu-Ghazaleh will lead the 56th annual ceremony in the Main Quad of Grossmont College, at 8800 Grossmont College Drive in El Cajon. Cuyamaca College, at 900 Rancho San Diego Parkway in Rancho San Diego, will hold its 39th annual ceremony led by President Julianna Barnes in front of B building, the Communication Arts Center.

A busy academic year highlighted by new programs and major grants to expand learning opportunities at the colleges will end as graduates celebrate their day in the sun. The increased number of degrees and certificates to be awarded reflect the progress of several academic initiatives, such as changing placement processes to get more students taking transfer-level courses or providing additional services to students who need extra help to earn their degree.

Cindy L. Miles, chancellor of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District, said the innovative efforts to promote student success at Grossmont and Cuyamaca colleges have paid off with the higher number of degrees and certificates being awarded to graduates this year.

“Our colleges are committed to providing exceptional learning opportunities for all of our students so they can reach their educational goals,” she said. “We’re confident that our graduates will use their education to become vital members of the community here in East County and beyond.”

Grossmont College speakers

The student speaker selected to give Grossmont College’s commencement address is Danielle P. Santana, an honors graduate earning an associate degree in Child Development. She plans to transfer to Point Loma Nazarene University to pursue a bachelor’s in Integrated Studies with an emphasis in education.

The East County native – the first in her family to earn a college degree – has her sights set on teaching young children, a passion she discovered at Grossmont College. Her interest in teaching children was piqued by Child Development courses, and cemented by her experience as a student worker at the Child Development Center.

“Whether you are 5 or 105, the love for learning is the most valuable lesson that one could ever learn or teach,” Santana said. “I hope to teach the next generation how to love to learn.”

The keynote speech will be given by Grossmont Healthcare District Board member Virginia Hall, a retired registered nurse who earned her associate degree in nursing at Grossmont College in 1978. She credits the college for teaching her persistence after she was initially denied admittance into the nursing program.

Hall started her healthcare career in 1973 as a certified nursing assistant, then became a registered nurse after completing her degree. She worked until 2004 at local hospitals, emergency rooms, clinics and research facilities, including the Shiley Center for Orthopaedic Research and Education (SCORE) at Scripps Clinic.

In November 2016, Hall was elected to the board of the Grossmont Healthcare District, a public agency that supports health-related-community programs in East County and oversees a lease for Sharp Grossmont Hospital on behalf of taxpayers.

Since 2003, Hall has worked in real estate and has been active in the community of Santee, including serving as 2016 president of the Santee Chamber of Commerce. Her husband, Ronn, serves on the Santee City Council.

Cuyamaca College commencement

The keynote commencement speaker at Cuyamaca College will be alumna Janet Leak-Garcia (right), a U.S. Forest Service policy analyst and a leader in the agency’s Tribal Relations and Wilderness program.

Leak-Garcia was in her mid-30s when she graduated from Cuyamaca College in 2000 with a 4.0 grade point average. She succeeded in her education undaunted by challenges that included single parenthood, a lifetime of poverty, a vision disorder and, unknown to her at the time, Asperger’s, a syndrome on the autism spectrum. 

She went on to earn a bachelor’s in biology from San Diego State University, and a doctorate in Evolutionary and Population Genetics from the University of California, Riverside.

A prestigious fellowship at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. followed, where she worked on international trade and food safety policy for the Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service. She also worked in connection with the World Trade Organization, at one point preparing position papers for bilateral trade talks with South Korea. She also helped develop food safety training policies for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, a forum for 21 nations that promotes free trade in the Pacific Rim. Her work on international trade issues took her around the world, but an interest in natural resource management led to her landing a fellowship with the U.S. Forest Service in 2012 and a permanent position a year later.

The student commencement speech will be given by honors graduate Jovonda Reina, a former foster youth who is earning her associate degree in psychology and will be transferring to San Diego State University.

“I hope to one day become a mental health counselor for teens and bring more awareness to and help eradicate the stigma of mental health issues in the black community,” Reina said. “I cannot thank this place enough for helping me realize my potential and molding me into a better student, a better thinker and a better person.”

Reina has been active in EOPS (Extended Opportunity Programs and Services) a program for the economically and educationally underserved student population, the campus Psychology Club, and is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society.

Before coming to Cuyamaca College, Reina attended the U.S. Naval Academy. She left after 18 months, finding herself still dealing with emotional issues from her youth. At Cuyamaca College, Reina said she found her home and the support she needed to succeed at Cuyamaca College.

Governing Board President Bill Garrett said he is always reminded this time of year of the life-altering impact of community colleges.  “Our graduates received a stellar education and the doors are opened wide to them for future success,” he said.

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