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June 10, 2014 (El Cajon)--More than 2,000 graduates have received a record number of degrees and certificates from Cuyamaca and Grossmont colleges in the annual celebrations of academic accomplishment, evenings made memorable by inspirational speeches, congratulatory moments, proud families and joyous graduates.

With many earning multiple degrees and certificates, more than 600 graduates received 878 degrees and certificates Wednesday at Cuyamaca College. Over 1,400 received 2,952 degrees and certificates Thursday at Grossmont College.

Chancellor Cindy Miles congratulated the graduates, telling them the time and money they’ve put into attending college is one of the best investments they could have ever made. She noted a U.S. Department of Commerce study which found that people with an associate degree earned nearly a half-million dollars more in their lifetime than someone with only a high school education.

Saying they were the beneficiaries of a world-class education, Miles urged the graduates to “pay it forward” and always remember where they had first started down the path of higher education. Graduates at both colleges received their diplomas and certificates from the college district’s Governing Board trustees.

Governing Board President Bill Garrett congratulated the graduates on their “extraordinary hard work and doing an absolutely fantastic job” to acquire a terrific education. He thanked the families of graduates, saying their support was invaluable and acknowledged the pride they have in their loved one’s educational accomplishments. Garrett drew a chuckle as he told graduates that there was no better time than on commencement day to hit up family members for money.

Cuyamaca College ceremony

Cuyamaca College’s 36th annual commencement ceremony featured as its keynote speaker Mae Brown, assistant vice chancellor of Admissions and Enrollment Services at the University of California, San Diego. Brown, an Arkansas native, is a first-generation college student from a family of eight siblings with parents who worked the cotton fields as sharecroppers. Brown said the expectation was that all the siblings would follow suit to help support the family. What proved her salvation was her mother, who realized the importance of schooling after she began working in the homes of educators.

Brown said the chasm was deep between knowing the importance of an education and acquiring one.

“While I had a dream of going to college, I was not prepared academically,” she said. “So, imagine I stand here before you as a potential high school dropout.” Her freshman year of college was a series of academic disasters, and she nearly quit, but Brown said her mother’s advice to persevere after coming so far kept her on course. A caring and supportive faculty member intervened during her second semester, providing the guidance she needed throughout her undergraduate year. “It was that intervention that literally saved my college career, and really influenced my desire to pursue a profession that enabled me to work with students, and to serve as a role model for others,” she said.

Giving the valedictory speech was student Nancy Yousif, an Iraqi refugee with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average. She will receive an associate degree in social work, and plans to transfer to San Diego State University in the fall.

“It wasn’t easy for me to balance between school, family, and then a job,” said Yousif, 33, who fled her ravaged country in 2008 with her children and husband, also a Cuyamaca College student.  She began as an English As a Second Language student at the college in 2010. With three sons and a part-time job as a student worker, Yousif said there were times when was ready to give up, but her husband and family remained steadfast in their support and encouragement.

Yousif said her early struggles adjusting to life in America as a refugee have instilled in her a goal to become a social worker. “There were many times when I thought I would not reach the finish line,” she said. “However, those struggles have only made this moment sweeter. While I am ready to continue my academic education at San Diego State University next fall, I am also filled with a deep sense of sadness for leaving this wonderful place. Cuyamaca College has been my second home since I started attending classes. I will miss every one of you.”

College President Mark J. Zacovic expressed his pride for the class of 2014, saying they had accomplished much to get to commencement. To illustrate his point, he had graduates stand as he queried how many had job or family obligations to contend with on top of their academic demands. “We all appreciate what you have been through,” he said to the mostly standing graduates. “It’s not easy.”

Grossmont College commencement

In applauding the class of 2014, Grossmont College President Sunita “Sunny” Cooke praised the graduates for their perseverance and overcoming obstacles to their education.

“All of you graduates have worked very hard to get to this point in your education, and I know that you are well prepared for your next step,” she said during the college’s 53rd annual commencement ceremony.

In keeping with tradition, a Grossmont College alum – this year former San Diego County Chief Administrative Officer Walt Ekard – gave the commencement speech.  A San Diego native, Ekard attended Grossmont College in 1974 before going on to receive his bachelor’s in history from San Diego State University and a Juris Doctor degree from the University of San Diego School of Law.

Ekard served as the chief executive for the nation’s fifth largest county for nearly 14 years, managing a workforce of over 16,000 employees and an annual budget of $5 billion. After retiring in 2012, he was once again called to public service by the City of San Diego in July 2013 following accusations against then-Mayor Bob Filner. Ekard served as the interim chief operating officer for four months to help stabilize city operations during a tumultuous period.  Ekard credited his time at Grossmont College for laying the foundation for his future.

“This was the beginning for me,” he said. “This is where I began to learn the things that would shape my career. I learned discipline here, and how to set goals and how commitment and dedication to a purpose can pay dividends.”

His words of advice to graduates included three key elements: to expect the unexpected in one’s career and to always be ready; to not let fear stand in the way of success; and in life, as well as in one’s career, always remember that character counts.

The student commencement speech was given by Zechariah “Zach” Bolz, who graduated from Grossmont College with an associate degree in German. Bolz will be starting in the fall at the University of California, Berkeley, where he plans to major in economics and political science. 

Bolz first came to Grossmont College at age 15 to take a class in German in preparation for studying abroad. He became a full-time student in fall 2012, majoring in German, with aspirations of applying his linguistic skills to a diplomatic career. He followed up his stay in Germany with a year studying in China.

Now 20, Bolz credits Grossmont College for giving him a solid foundation for his studies ahead at Berkeley.

“I will remember this place as being a rich academic environment with a plethora of cultures, experiences, and knowledge,” Bolz said.  “Graduates, take pride in where you graduated from, because this is one of the most diverse college campuses there is and you are what make it great. “


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