Monday, June 10, 2013

Cheers and tears of joy as colleges celebrate more than 1,200 graduates

A new Grossmont college graduate celebrates
“We did it, Andrew.”
With those simple words, Grossmont College commencement speaker and now graduate Derrick Torrence paid tribute at Wednesday’s graduation ceremony to a son -- also once a Grossmont student -- fatally injured in a motorcycle accident in 2007. 
In a voice catching with emotion, Torrence said he often wondered if he might be in a classroom chair once occupied by his son, or if Andrew was equally baffled by math problems.
“So this education is not mine alone as much as it is a continuation of Andrew’s college dream, as well,” said Torrence, who was joined at commencement by his daughter and fellow graduating senior Jacquelyn “Jade” Torrence.
The two Torrences are among more than 1,200 graduates at Grossmont College and 525 at Cuyamaca College to receive associate degrees and certificates this year. A campaign to improve student success is paying off at the East County colleges, where new programs and services helping students achieve academic goals, along with voters’ approval last fall of a tax plan tempering years of debilitating budget cuts, are credited for the record 2,100 degrees and certificates awarded to students, many who earned multiple credentials.
Two days of pomp and circumstance were highlighted June 5 and 6 by a remarkable mix of commencement speakers, each a testament to the power of education:
·         Torrence, a retired U.S. Marine who plans to pursue his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in social work to become a military social worker;
·          The Rev. Eric Smith, a Grossmont College alumnus who overcame drug addiction and a severe childhood stutter to become a business owner and founder of a ministry serving society’s outcasts, and a nonprofit organization that helps the elderly;
·          Viktoriya Sinelnikov, a Ukrainian nurse who started at Cuyamaca College unable to speak English and graduated as class valedictorian;
·         Alex Montoya, a triple amputee from Colombia who graduated from the University of Notre Dame and is a member of the San Diego Padres’ front office, as well as an accomplished motivational speaker and author.
Both colleges in the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District dealt with four years of state budget reductions that led to $16 million in funding losses and the slashing of hundreds of classes, potentially delaying students’ educational progress. To help students complete their education, the colleges launched student success initiatives like Cuyamaca College’s “Graduation Starts Today” program and provided additional guidance to help seniors clear that final hurdle to get to graduation.
Last November’s passage of the Proposition 30 tax partially restored the coffers of public education, allowing the college district to restore some classes this spring that had fallen victim to the budget ax. The efforts have been a big plus, with the colleges experiencing a 14 percent increase in degrees and certificates awarded over the previous year.
“All of you sitting here are aware that community colleges in general are places of great opportunity for all who choose to enroll,” Grossmont College President Sunita “Sunny” Cooke said during the ceremony in the Main Quad. “Here at Grossmont College, every day we are aware we change lives through education.”
Living proof of that transformation is Smith, Grossmont College’s keynote speaker, who touched on his personal demons and challenges, starting with the severe stutter he had as a child growing up in Chattanooga, Tenn. Other problems ensued, including an addiction to crack, which he said he turned to for an escape.
Where he found true answers was education.
Following two years at Grossmont College in ethnic studies, Smith received his bachelor’s in human development from Christian Heritage College. He entered the ministry in 1999 and started his church, Loving Care Outreach, to serve the public and those in need, including addicts, alcoholics, inmates and troubled youth. He also owns a full-service painting company, the Caring Painters, and founded the Loving Care Center, a non-profit serving the elderly in skilled nursing facilities.
Smith said that when he was a Grossmont College student, he was angered by the corrections in red ink from English instructor Cathy Harvey to his papers, but he is thankful now and considers her a good friend.
Chancellor Cindy L. Miles, greeting crowds at both campuses with a resounding cheer, congratulated the class of 2013 for its perseverance and accomplishment. “You are now a member of an elite club and you have something that no one can ever take away from you: a college education,” she said.
Governing Board President Bill Garrett concluded his congratulatory message with an admonishment of future challenges and the necessity to forge ahead. “Life itself is not always easy, but just remember that the tough times are only temporary,” he said.
A happy Cuyamaca College graduate
Cuyamaca College president Mark Zacovic read excerpts from letters and messages he received from students extolling the excellence of faculty, including one from Maria Brown, a formerly homeless mother who described the life-altering experience of being a Cuyamaca College student.
“Cuyamaca is not just a college to me, it’s my family – a family that cared enough to make sure I had the tools needed to make a difference not only in my life, but my children’s and all the people in the world that I plan to give back to once I graduate from law school,” Brown’s letter read.
Viktoriya Sinelnikov, who gave the valedictory speech at Cuyamaca, thanked English instructor Tim Pagaard and the tutors in the college’s writing center for helping her advance from someone who spoke almost no English to graduating with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average as a science and mathematics major. 
A person who’s faced challenges of another sort is Cuyamaca’s keynote speaker, Alex Montoya, manager of Latino affairs for the San Diego Padres, and an author and internationally recognized spokesman on issues relating to people with disabilities. Montoya was born in Colombia missing one leg and both arms, and was sent to San Diego at age 4 to live with relatives in San Diego so he could get the medical care he needed.
Montoya, who gave each graduate a copy of his 2008 book, “Swinging for the Fences,” said in his speech that he knew from a young age that education was key to overcoming physical challenges. To bring perspective to his condition requiring the wearing of three prosthetic limbs, he had audience members raise both arms and one leg and had them imagine what it would  be like to be missing three limbs. “What if you had to wear three prosthetics while at Cuyamaca College?”  he said.
Montoya concluded his speech on an inspirational note. “If a young man from Colombia, South America, missing three limbs can do it, graduates, why can’t you? Anything is possible. You can do anything.”