On the hottest day of 2016, I arrived at the parking garage at American River College to practice “the walk” for graduation. I ran to the stadium, which I had seen every day but had never formally visited, and made my way through a sea of folks getting complimentary Noah’s Bagels to hear the beginnings of the orientation.
“Congratulations,” Parrish Geary said through a bullhorn. “You’ve come a long way to get here.” As ARC’s Interim dean of Enrollment went through the way we were planning to line up, process, and be seated, I shielded the sun from eyes and tried to pretend my tears were from its rays.
In reality, it was hard not to get emotional. This campus was my big cushy welcome back to the world of higher education. Every part of it worked its way into my heart and now, only eighteen months after I started, I was graduating.
Back at home I tried on my gown and mortarboard and looked in the mirror. Looking back at me was a nervous, hope-filled girl, the day of her graduation from community college. Just the day before, I received news from my English teacher, Professor O’Brien, that I was also being awarded ARC’s English Student of the Year. It was an incredible way to finish this part of the journey.
When I was eighteen, I graduated high school and had little or no interest in college. At least, that was what I told people. The real story was that college required a discipline I did not have -- and money that was not available. My prospects were bleak but I was too proud to attend community college, Delta in Stockton.
“Just go for one semester,” my mother pleaded. “You will fall in love with it, I am sure!”
“No I won’t,” I said, as respectfully as I could.
I was dreaming of getting out of Tracy, moving to some big city, and getting my own apartment. I would need to work to save up the money to do this, and would have to stay in the stifling constriction of my parent’s house. Finally surrendering to my Mom’s wishes, I decided to enroll in CSU Stanislaus –and attend for exactly one semester. I blew it off like it was nothing. After my perfunctory semester I left college and moved out of my parent’s house.
My casual rebellion led me to the place where all rebellions do: disaster. By the time I recovered my balance (and realized my parents were not so stupid) I was twenty-two with a baby boy. Thankfully, Mario came along not long after and we fell in love. I was also in the process of being swept off my feet by God, who in his infinite power and mercy, transformed me with His amazing grace and love. Then came (like the childhood song) marriage, children, homeschooling, teenagers, grandchildren, Africa…. Coming home to America in 2013.
Serenity and focus led me to a season of reflection. Could I live my life in complete satisfaction and peace without that college degree?
The answer was no –but there was grace to go and get it.
The answer was no –but there was grace to go and get it.
The Graduation ceremony was at 7:00 pm and came with a merciful breeze that took the edge off the long afternoon sun. I kissed Mario goodbye in the parking lot, and as he headed for the stadium seating, I headed to the graduate’s meeting place. The breeze blew my gown close to me, and I was glad I wore flip-flops, especially when I watched other ladies walking slowly in their stilettos. I filled out a card with my details (including the pronunciation of my name) and carried it with me to the line of graduates, who stood in the shade of a vine-covered cyclone fence.
I saw Vanesa, a fellow Statway buddy and we stood together. Soon we were joined by Jezelle, one of my beloved Statway angels. Her Ethiopian friend was with her, a political science buddy was just ahead of us. Surrounded by graduates of all shapes, ages, and sizes, we lined up and got ready to process in to “Pomp and Circumstance.”
“I think my cell phone is dying,” I said to Jezelle, just as we started moving. “How can I text Mario through the ceremony?”
“I left mine with my kids, honey,” Jezelle said. We laughed at the irony. Without cell phones on this incredibly important day? No pictures? No fun texting during the ceremony? Would the world crumble?
There were about seven rows of graduates on each side of the aisle. I couldn’t count all of them, but out class was very large. I searched the stands for Mario and finally saw him. There he was, on an aisle seat half-way up the stands. I tried to get his attention above the band, the air horns, the applause, the shrieks of other graduates like me.
He finally saw me, and his face lit up. I held up my cell phone and made a chopping motion at my neck. “Dead!” I mouthed.
He didn’t seem to understand, or care. He kept lifting the camera top take pictures, so I blew him kisses, stood on my chair, waved and smiled. When he stopped taking pictures, he touched his heart and pointed to me. I broke down into the happiest tears I have cried in such a long time.
All I could think was…” I’m finally here, and he is here with me!” My best friend and my biggest supporter –without him, none of this would be possible. He is the one I strategized with when I knew I wanted to go back to school. How should I do it? Where should I go? How many night classes vs. day classes? How many units should I take? What should my goals be?
As students have counselors, I had Mario. My school counselor provided the HOW’s in the strategy. Mario kept me focused on the real goal: to make this whole thing glorify God.
The speeches were great. Our student speaker encouraged us as a community, as did the chancellor, and the Trustee. Nevertheless, the students were anxious to walk onto the stage and get our diplomas. The real diplomas will be mailed to us in six or seven months, after our grades are recorded and our records are reviewed, but our fake diplomas were waiting for us. The walk, the handshake, the smile for the camera, and the strut back to our seats? That was what we were there for.
Jezelle, Vanessa and I hugged a lot more than we ever did during normal school days. Nervous energy and incredible excitement made us overly-affectionate. I was happy that I was with people I knew, and I absolutely loved that I was at Beaver Stadium.
Finally, we moved our tassels from the right to the left, and we were pronounced graduates. In celebration, I threw my mortarboard in the air with a joyous shout. I think I was one of the few that did.
“What did you do that for?” Vanessa asked me.
“I wanted to,” I laughed. Jezelle was laughing, too. I guess no one else wanted to lose the mortarboard they had paid for and decorated. I could see where it landed, a couple of feet past the first row.
As we stood up to exit, I saw a tall, statuesque blonde in the front row, a girl I knew from Statway named Karly.
“Hey, Karly!” I yelled.
She looked up, and then scanned the crowd for the voice. Eventually, she saw me and smiled.
“HI!” she waved in triumphant celebration (I guess she thought I was calling out to Whoop! Whoop! with her).
“Can you get my mortarboard? I threw it and it’s right there!” I pointed toward it, and she retrieved it just as we started to exit.
I looked out for Mario, who pointed to the parking lot. I nodded.
‘We were lost in the maddening crowd for awhile, but only awhile. By the time I found him, I rejoiced. I rejoiced and I rejoiced.
This diploma does not signify an end, only a transition, but I have slayed the dragon that used to be my biggest insecurity: I now have a college degree.
As I type this, I cannot tell you how full my heart is. Next to me is my red, white and blue tassel that has a hanging “16” attached. In 2016 I graduated with an AA in English – and an honors certificate –and the distinction of being the English Student of the Year.
Grace beyond measure… the first stage is complete.
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…” Ecclesiastes 9:10
|The only pic of me exiting the stage (It was pretty far away!)