Over Memorial Day weekend I went to three graduation ceremonies, to see four students graduate. The first one was at a community college from which two of my former students were graduating. One, Tao, is a young woman for whom life has been a struggle. She came to the U.S. as a small child, form Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand. The week after her high school graduation she was diagnosed with Multiple Drug Resistant TB and hospitalized for several months. A year or so later, when she finally was clear of that, she began college. She had a hard time with the college English classes, and while she worked to pass those she earned certificates in several different areas of Office Management. Her graduation was a victory on many levels, and her family was all there to celebrate her.
The second student, Pang, has a different story. She was accepted to several universities when she graduated high school. Along with her brother and sisters, she played in the school band, and her family attended and videotaped every performance. During her Senior year she made applying for scholarships a priority, and was the top dollar recipient in her Senior class. Although she had several choices of university, she decided to stay home and attend community college. She now plans to transfer to Chico State to study nursing. As always, her family was there for the graduation, her dad videotaping the whole thing.
The second graduation ceremony I attended was at CSU, Sacramento (Sac State), and was held at Arco Arena, where the Kings play. This was for a young man who was inducted into a gang at an early age, and has fought to free himself from it ever since. Once he decided college was what he wanted, he graduated high school a year early and began at the community college. He is a very high energy sort of person, and threw himself into his studies with verve. After finishing at the community college, he transferred to Sac State to study Psychology. While there he did an internship with high school students, and decided he wanted to pursue a degree in school counseling. He will begin his M.A. studies in the fall. Throughout his college career, I have been called upon several times to write letters for him. One was to a judge, to keep him out of jail. That one shook him up. The next one was to help him get into his internship, and the last was to recommend him for the MA program. When he invited me to attend his graduation, he told me that if it weren’t for me and another teacher, he would not be in the position he is in today. He said it would mean the world to him if we were there. When I felt reluctant to drive the 100 miles on a Saturday morning in the rain, I thought, “If it was his funeral, you would attend without giving it a second thought. And you’d donate some money to the family. Why would you hold his college graduation in less regard?” Of course, I wouldn’t. I did go, to the graduation as well as to his home afterwards. And I gave him a gift of some money.
My last graduation of the weekend was at Chico State. The graduate, Jeff, is my daughter’s boyfriend, who had earned a degree in German. He plans to begin the police academy in January. For the past year he has been going on ride-alongs with various police officers, and plans to enroll in a volunteer community service officer training program this summer, before he goes to the academy. He stayed through the heat of the graduation ceremony, despite the masses of grads who were exiting early. He says, “It took me five years to finish college. What’s another twenty minutes of speeches?”
The unifying factor in all these graduations (besides the fact that they all took place on Memorial Day weekend and I went to them all) is that each of these students was the first in their family to graduate from college. The financial situation of their parents are somewhat different, at least between Jeff and my students, but all have achieved the same milestone. They have fulfilled a dream for not only themselves, but for their families. I give them all my highest congratulations and respect. They are why I chose the career I did, and why I continue to believe in the work I do.