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Source:  Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District

June 12, 2017 (El Cajon) - The impact on lives that Grossmont and Cuyamaca colleges have is never more apparent than on commencement day, when speakers talk about their first steps taken in their academic journeys and the encouragement they’ve received along the way.

And so it was at last week’s commencements, where two alums and two new graduates told audiences their personal stories, giving compelling accounts of their college experiences.

In addition to heartfelt speeches, commencement at both colleges was a day for the record books.  Beating a record set just a year ago, Grossmont and Cuyamaca colleges awarded 4,833 degrees and certificates to the class of 2017, a 13 percent increase over 2016.

With many students receiving multiple credentials, 1,581 graduates earned 3,744 degrees and certificates June 7 at Grossmont College. At Cuyamaca College, which held its commencement the following day, about 650 were awarded 1,089 degrees and certificates. Graduation balloons bobbed in the air and personalized mortarboards could be spotted amid a sea of graduates who cheered and applauded at every opportunity.

After congratulatory whoops to graduates at both colleges, Chancellor Cindy Miles quizzed the students on the etymology of the word “graduate.”

“It’s from the Latin, ‘gradus,’ a step climbed,” she said. “You are taking a big step this evening and you have other big steps before you. Go do the wonderful things we know you will.”

Governing Board President Bill Garrett also congratulated graduates on a job well done and encouraged them to act with integrity in their future endeavors.

“Go forward with integrity and make this country and this world a better place,” he said.

Grossmont College Commencement

An emotional speech at Grossmont College’s 56th annual ceremony was given by student speaker Danielle P. Santana, an honors graduate who earned an associate degree in Child Development and 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 during her first semester 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.

Santana spoke about hardships her parents endured and how they struggled to provide a better life for their children. Her father emigrated from Mexico; her mother escaped an abusive home, and both came from poverty-stricken backgrounds.

“To every child of parents who fought against boundaries and borders to obtain the promise that you would be standing here today, I say to you now publicly in honor of them – congratulations, today you make them proud,” she said, ending her speech with tearful thanks to a big brother she called her hero and to her parents.

The keynote commencement speech was delivered by Grossmont Healthcare District Board member and retired registered nurse Virginia Hall, who earned her associate degree in nursing at Grossmont College in 1978. Hall started her healthcare career in 1973 and worked until 2004 at local hospitals, emergency rooms, clinics and research facilities. In November 2016, Hall was elected to the board of the Grossmont Healthcare District, the public agency that oversees a lease for Sharp Grossmont Hospital on behalf of taxpayers.

Borrowing from self-help author Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich,” Hall advised graduates to remember the three P’s: patience, persistence and perspiration, and relayed her personal story as lessons learned.

“While you may be sick of school right now, my earnest prayer for you is that you will continue to love learning, either through continued formal or do-it-yourself education,” said Hall, who has worked in real estate since 2003 and served in 2016 as president of the Santee Chamber of Commerce. “Get involved in your community. It can open many doors for you.”

Cuyamaca College Commencement

The keynote commencement speaker at Cuyamaca College’s 39th Annual Commencement was Janet Leak-Garcia, once a minimum-wage earner who graduated from Cuyamaca College in 2000, then went on to earn a doctorate in genetics. She is now a policy analyst working to protect millions of acres under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service.

As a single parent in her mid-30s, Leak-Garcia overcame economic and physical challenges to earn her associate degree from Cuyamaca College with a 4.0 GPA, then went on for a bachelor’s in biology from San Diego State University and a doctorate from the Genetics, Genomics and Bioinformatics program at the University of California, Riverside.

“If I was to succeed in completing a degree, I needed a launching pad where I could start college and be mentored at the same time,” said Leak-Garcia,  who credited Disabled Students Program and Services (DSPS) for helping her overcome hurdles that included a vision disorder and, unknown to her at the time, Asperger’s, a syndrome on the autism spectrum. “I lived closer to other schools, but I chose Cuyamaca because of the care they showed me as I inquired about programs. Best decision ever.”

She also thanked her science professors, who recognized her promise early on in spite of her own self-doubt.

“I didn’t see it at the time, but my biology and chemistry professors, Kathryn Nette and Laurie LeBlanc, sure did, and they let me know that,” said Leak-Garcia, encouraging graduates to stay true to their dreams. “And sensing that I was having a hard time believing them, they told me again… and again. I love them both for that.”

The student commencement speech was given by honors graduate Jovonda Reina, a former foster youth who earned her associate degree from Cuyamaca College’s psychology program and will be transferring to San Diego State University to earn a bachelor’s and a master’s in counseling. Accepted out of high school in the Naval Academy, Reina left after 18 months, finding herself still dealing with emotional issues from her youth. At Cuyamaca College, Reina said she found the support she needed.

“Here at Cuyamaca, I felt at home and welcomed the moment I stepped on campus and that I was finally in the right place at the right time,” said Reina, who started at Cuyamaca in fall 2016, and aspires to becoming a mental health counselor for teens and to help eradicate the stigma of mental health issues in the black community.

“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,” she said.

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