Santa Rosa Junior College graduate Sylvia Bracamonte has no uncertainty about the value of higher education as she prepares to move on to UC Berkeley.

As the student speaker Saturday for the community college's largest-ever graduating class, Bracamonte, 27, sought to silence those who question whether college is still worthwhile, given ever-rising costs and economic uncertainty.

Experience that helps shape each student and gives them to power to change their lives?

"Cha-ching," Bracamonte said. "Take that to the bank and deposit it."

The chance as a first-generation college student to pave the way for future generations? "Cha-ching," she said.

An opportunity like the one she took three years ago as a high school drop-out and single mother with a history of addiction and bad choices to choose another path? "Cha-ching" again.

"When we open our minds to being a generation of solution-based, critical thinkers, we are demonstrating the value of our education," Bracamonte said.

Stories like hers were not hard to find among the 1,600 graduates represented Saturday by about 500 students who participated in commencement under the campus' majestic oaks.

Gilma Martinez, 32, arrived from El Salvador 11 years ago speaking only Spanish. She balanced work and school, family demands, her beloved father's death and having to learn English to earn an associate's degree in child development on Saturday.

Javier Rivera, 25, whose flamboyant strut on the dais earned a hoots from his personal cheering section, cut family ties and left home in San Francisco at 17 to move to Santa Rosa, where he earned his associate's degree in psychology this year. He had no job and no connections, but "I did my research about the junior college," he said.

It took several years for massage therapist, husband and father of two Allen Volpe, 30, to realize it was engineering that he wanted to pursue professionally. Thanks to the support of his wife, Erica, and 9-year-old daughter, Lilith, he is finished at the junior college and in transition to UC Davis, he said Saturday, with 1-year-old son Asher on the ground at his feet.

"I couldn't have done it without my wife and my daughter helping," he said.

The graduates ranged in age from 18 to 74, hailing from places near and far away, such as Togo, Nepal, Brazil and South Korea, college president Frank Chong said.

Family and friends of many colors and languages gathered to celebrate their achievements, armed with balloons and flowers, busy cameras and plenty of pride.

"The opportunities are enormous," Chong told those graduating. "The world is changing. Be prepared to lead."

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or