Tuesday, March 28, 2017

AlumniFest draws big crowd of community college alum

The weather gods smiled down upon San Diego over the weekend, drawing sighs of relief from AlumniFest organizers who say the 3,000 community college alum and others who attended a tailgate rally before a Gulls hockey game at Valley View Casino Center Saturday represent the largest crowd ever for an event of its kind.
AlumniFest fans and their "thunder sticks."

For the second year in a row, community colleges in San Diego and Imperial counties celebrated with Community College AlumniFest, a tailgate bash in the parking lot of the home arena for San Diego Gulls hockey club, co-host of the event, along with California Coast Credit Union. This year’s attendance topped the 2,300 at last year’s inaugural event, memorable for torrential rains and gale-force winds that forced the event indoors.

Grossmont alum Karen Pearlman drops the puck.

Not so this year, as scores of former community college students from throughout the county brought friends and family for a SoCal-perfect outdoor evening of fun, games, line dancing, prizes and sharing college memories, followed by admission to the Gulls game against the Bakersfield Condors for the bargain price of $10. 

 For AlumniFest celebrants like Southwestern College graduates Eddie DeBaca and his wife, Esther, Saturday’s event was a reminder of the life-changing impact that community colleges have on so many. The Chula Vista couple both credit the education they received at the South Bay college for providing a path for good jobs: he is a postal carrier; she is a teacher at Lauderbach Elementary School in Chula Vista. 

“We took turns working and supporting each other as we went to college,” said Eddie, who received his associate of arts degree in the mid-‘90s. “I went first, and then, I told my wife, it’s your time now for school.”  

Esther, who received her associate of arts in Child Development and transferred to National University for her bachelor’s in elementary education, said the affordability of community colleges and the personal attention she received from her instructors are what she remembers most from her years at Southwestern College. 
Gizmo, Grossmont's mascot, does a line dance.

Such stories are like gems to people in the business of community college advancement, said John Valencia, vice chancellor of Workforce and Organizational Development at Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District, which organized AlumniFest. 

Valencia, who served as a time as the executive director of the Foundation for Grossmont & Cuyamaca Colleges, said all too often, community college alumni who go on to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees hold a strong allegiance to their universities and don’t give as much credit to the two-year colleges where they embarked on their higher education.   

“That’s why events like AlumniFest are so great – they remind people of the value of community colleges,” he said. 

As the region’s largest provider of higher education and the largest workforce trainer, San Diego’s nine community colleges and Imperial Valley College enrolled nearly 150,000 students for the 2016-17 academic year alone, so there’s little question of the impact of community college alum to the area. But while universities have long had robust alumni organizations, community colleges are relatively new to developing similar ties to their graduates and past students. It was in this spirit of building camaraderie that AlumniFest was born.

Valencia gave a presentation last year at the national conference for Community College Advancement and it was there that he heard from colleagues about the novelty of AlumniFest and its goal to bring together community college alum to recognize the contributions of two-year colleges. 

“This is truly the largest event for community college alumni in the nation,” he said. 

This year, the Grossmont-Cuyamaca foundation decided to mine stories like the DeBacas’ by asking ticket-buyers to describe in online forms how community colleges have affected their lives. The best descriptions earned the graduates and former students free upgrades to coveted spectator seats flush to the ice with access to the private Stella Artois clubroom. 

Mesa College and other campuses took part.

Among the winners was Danielle Rice, a 2009 Grossmont College nursing graduate, who related her story of acquiring her dream job. 

“I graduated in December and on Jan. 16, I was hired as a registered nurse at Sharp Memorial Hospital,” said Rice, who has since moved to a new job as a pediatric nurse at Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women and Newborns. “I love my job, caring for little babies.”

AlumniFest is an annual event recognizing the following San Diego and Imperial Counties Community College Association colleges and their alum: Grossmont and Cuyamaca colleges in East County; City, Mesa, Miramar colleges, along with San Diego Continuing Education, in the city of San Diego; Southwestern College in South County; and MiraCosta and Palomar colleges in North County.  Imperial Valley College is in Imperial County.

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