Photo: Stephen Harvey/Grossmont College photographer : Grossmont College graduates embrace at their commencement ceremony June 3.
June 11, 2015 (El Cajon)-- man incarcerated in his youth now heading to UC Berkeley. A doctor of education who once thought a high school diploma was the pinnacle of her schooling. An Iraqi immigrant who now sits on the council of East County’s largest city. A retired businessman who is donating his wealth to better his community.
These were among the faces seen at commencement ceremonies at Grossmont and Cuyamaca colleges June 3 and 4. What linked these compelling stories of human grit and determination was the impact that the East County colleges had on their lives.
The 2,100 graduates who earned a record 4,200 associate degrees and certificates last week heard from role models like Caleb Martinez and Pearl Lopez, Grossmont College’s commencement speakers who both overcame difficult pasts, and Star Bales, a Cuyamaca College alum-turned-politician. Cuyamaca College graduates gave a standing ovation as Bill Verbeck, an 87-year-old Spring Valley entrepreneur, received the district’s first honorary associate degree.
Tim Flood, Grossmont College’s interim president, told graduates and spectators that Martinez and alumnus speaker Lopez, a counselor in the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) office, “took ownership of their life stories and used their challenges to mold themselves into the strong, successful people they are today.”
Flood – also a Grossmont College alum -- urged graduates at Grossmont’s 54th annual commencement to be the authors of their own masterpieces. “Always remember if things aren’t going well, you have the power to edit and revise,” Flood said.
Martinez, who transfers in the fall to the University of California, Berkeley after earning his associate degree, overcame a childhood of poverty and crime to become a straight-A student in college. He plans to major in political science and obtain a law degree from Berkeley.
“As graduates of Grossmont College, we are testimony to what people can accomplish if just given the opportunity to do so,” Martinez said. “Community colleges give birth to second chances and give wings to dreams that were never thought possible.”
Lopez, a 1995 graduate of Grossmont College, is another example of the transformative power of community colleges. A product of an El Centro barrio, Lopez described graduating from high school, relieved that her days of homework and tests were behind her.
“I went to work at Denny’s. I was happy. I thought I was done,” Lopez said.
After a supervisor at her next job urged her to attend college, she enrolled the following week, eventually graduating from Grossmont College, then earning a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State University. A master’s degree in counseling followed, capped in 2014 by a doctoral degree from SDSU in educational leadership with a specialization in community college/post-secondary education.
Chancellor Cindy Miles, who studied biology as an undergraduate, reminded the class of 2015 of the concept of symbiosis in describing the mutual benefit that students and community colleges provide one another.
“It’s about mutual interdependence, a connection that is good for both creatures,” she said. “I know that you have benefitted from your time here. But we have also benefitted by your enthusiasm, your questions, and your thirst for learning.”
Governing Board President Bill Garrett told the graduates that Qualcomm executive chairman Paul Jacobs once said that the most important quality he looks for when hiring employees is finding people who are passionate about their jobs.
“To that, I would add persistence,” Garrett said. “With passion and persistence, you will be successful.”
Cuyamaca College ceremony
At Cuyamaca College, interim president Wei Zhou started the college’s 37th commencement ceremony on a lighter note, prompting a loud round of cheers with a quip that now the students can celebrate, there would no more tests.
Instead, Zhou quizzed graduates on how many met characteristics widely identified as “at-risk” factors negatively impacting student success, such as being the first in their families to go to college or having to hold down jobs while attending classes. As more hands were raised, his point became clear: many graduates have overcome obstacles to make it to graduation day.
Commencement speaker and El Cajon Councilwoman Star Bales thanked teachers and staff for helping her become the person she is today.
“I am a happy, proud Cuyamaca College graduate, and so are both of my kids,” said Bales, who received her associate degree in visual arts in 2006.
Born in Iraq, Bales came to the United States in 1979 and has lived in El Cajon for 31 years. Cuyamaca College nominated her as a 2014 Distinguished Alumni for Outstanding Achievement and Service, an award given by the Community College League of California.
Two student speakers, valedictorian Marissa Morrison and student body president Elsa Hernandez, expressed thanks to Cuyamaca College for the educational foundation provided to them.
Morrison, who graduated with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average, has earned associate degrees in three areas of study: psychology, social and behavioral sciences, and communication and language arts. Headed for San Diego State University, Morrison plans to major in psychology and eventually enter the field of law or to become a marriage and family counselor.
“I am thankful for the professors who went above and beyond to enrich my educational experience,” she said.
Hernandez started at Cuyamaca College in fall 2012 as a first-generation college student and became interested in student government. She served as Cuyamaca College’s student trustee of the college district Governing Board in 2014-15, then became student body president after completing her term on the board.
An international business major with an emphasis in Spanish, she will be attending San Diego State University in the fall to earn an international business degree. She plans to continue with student government at SDSU and upon graduating from the university, she has her eyes set on joining the Peace Corps.
‘For some, we are the first in our family to pursue an education further than high school,” Hernandez said. “Whatever the case may be, we have had the strong support and passion from Cuyamaca College to be there with us every step of the way.”