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Cruz Martinez never expected to get to college, let alone graduate.

"I came here as a dare from my wife," he said of his decision to enroll in 2008. But on Saturday he was in cap and gown, holding his newly minted diploma from Santa Rosa Junior College.

Martinez, 53, was one of a half-dozen graduates singled out among the approximate 1,470 who participated Saturday in SRJC's 95th annual graduation.

They were honored for overcoming especially adverse circumstances, including poverty, cancer, debilitating physical injury, domestic violence and substance abuse problems.

But Saturday, above all, was a day of marking achievement for all the graduates in the 2014 commencement held outdoors on the college lawn under majestic oak trees.

"How fortunate we are to be part of a community, state and country that values education," SRJC President Frank Chong told the audience. "We're here to witness the wonderful celebration of accomplishment."

He said the opportunities in the changing world are enormous and "you must be prepared to lead."

He got a laugh when he added "lead yourselves to financial independence so your parents can have a break."

Keynote speaker was SRJC alumna Dr. Colleen Finnegan, a physician who is chief of Kaiser Permanente's HIV Department in Portland. Ore.

She spoke of her childhood dream to become a ballerina that changed to wanting to pursue a degree in medicine after losing friends, dance partners and teachers to the AIDS epidemic that hit the ballet world especially hard in the 1980s.

"I didn't want friends to have died in vain and their names disappear," she said. "I decided I wanted to become a doctor."

She said Santa Rosa Junior College — what she described as "an academic goldmine" — enabled her to become a "science person," beginning with Algebra 101.

Finnegan went on to UC Davis, where she obtained a nutrition degree, then received her degree in medicine from Tufts University in Boston.

At Oxford University, she studied infectious diseases before landing at Kaiser, helping people to live better with HIV.

"It feels like yesterday I was sitting where you were sitting," she said in reference to her graduation 22 years ago. "Santa Rosa Junior College gave me my beginnings. Therefore it gave me my life."

The mother of two said she and her husband also started a hard cider company. With cider production, she relies on tips she learned in her JC organic chemistry class.

Finnegan cautioned the graduates not to be daunted by failure — which teaches humility and spurs learning — acknowledging that she didn't get into grad school on her first try.

A main theme Saturday was one of inspiring stories involving students overcoming hardships, as relayed by SRJC President Chong.

He spoke of Brian Villa, known as "the kid with the book" during his childhood, because he escaped to his room to read when his father beat his mother. Now Villa, who graduated with a near perfect grade point average, plans to study English at UC Berkeley, earn a graduate degree and become an author.

Ali Sami was in a car accident his senior year of high school and suffered a traumatic brain injury that caused him to struggle with even basics like speaking and walking. But after rigorous rehabilitation and taking advantage of disability resources at the Junior College, he is on his way to a physical therapy career with a degree in kinesiology.

Martinez, who is in recovery and involved with 12-step programs, received degrees in human services, drug and alcohol counseling, and advocacy, skills he said will help in his work with clients at the Sonoma County Indian Health Center, where he is a domestic violence counselor.

A Pomo-Wappo Indian registered with the Manchester-Point Arena tribe, the man who never intended to go to college now plans to continue his education with a four-year degree in sociology.

"I've been able to have the tools and skills to further my clients and community," he said. "I like giving back."

For every student who studied social sciences or the humanities Saturday, there were also graduates in vocational fields hoping to become auto mechanics, dental assistants or nurses.

Carolyn Bess? who owns Sweet Expectations bakery and wedding cake business in Rohnert Park, was cheering on Kaitlyn Lowry, 20, who works for her and was awarded a degree in culinary arts and business.

"She is a baker's assistant. She's very focused and driven," Bess?said. "She wants get as much experience as she can, maybe someday have her own little bakery."

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.