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Saturday was a day of milestones for Sonoma State University graduate Raquel Vargas.

Not only was the East Bay native the first in her family to earn a four-year college degree, but she received it as part of the largest class in the university’s 56-year history.

And when the future kindergarten teacher walked the stage inside Weill Hall at the Green Music Center, she was among the first to pick up a diploma in the campus’ showcase, $145 million concert venue.

“It’s an adrenaline kind of rush,” said Vargas, who wore a mortar board affixed with a picture of an apple and a thank you note to her parents. “Everything seems to be happening so fast.”

Vargas was among a record-breaking 2,651 students eligible to receive degrees in SSU’s class of 2017. University officials attribute an increase of about 180 students over last year to strengthened academic advising, added classroom capacity and other measures to boost student success.

The other big change was the graduation venue. In the past, ceremonies were held in one day, outside on bleacher-style seats. But for the first time, ceremonies were scheduled over two days this weekend inside the white wood-paneled music center, opened in 2012. Friends and family watched from balconies and from the lawn outside, aided by giant video screens.

“I personally enjoy the outside stuff,” said Jose Inguanzo, who sat under a yellow umbrella waiting for his sister-in-law, Paula Segura of Napa, to cross the stage.

The twin milestones speak to efforts to expand the Rohnert Park campus’ capacity for students and the desire of new SSU President Judy Sakaki’s to use the performing arts venue for more student and community events.

In her speech Saturday to the graduates from the School of Arts and Humanities, Sakaki, who is completing her first year in office, credited students’ perseverance for the large graduating class.

“You deserve to walk across the stage and have a world-class graduating ceremony,” she said with a nod to the state-of-the-art building. “No star on this stage has shined brighter than you shined Sunday.”

Sakaki said about three-quarters of the class hailed from Northern California, but some came from as far away as China and Saudi Arabia. Most held jobs as they pursued their education.

She urged them use their new status to lift others.

“You are now ready — ready to leave this campus and go out and make your mark on the world,” Sakaki said to applause.

Sunday’s ceremonies start at 9 a.m.

The university bestowed honorary doctorate degrees on two local leaders. On Saturday, Santa Rosa businessman Willie Tamayo, co-founder of La Tortilla Factory and president of the Elsie Allen High School Foundation, received his honorary degree for providing scholarships to first-generation college students.

And Sunday, philanthropist Connie Codding, who along with her late husband, developer Hugh Codding, started a family charity in the 1960s, will be recognized for supporting causes including drug abuse prevention and teen pregnancy.

“Having family members go to college is a great indicator of success,” said Tamayo, 65, the son of farm laborers who followed his two older brothers into college. “I said, hey, if they are going to college so am I.”

Codding, 82, said in an email she was humbled by the honorary degree.

“Education is our future and I feel so blessed to be able to continue learning and be exposed to new ideas,” she said.

Those receiving bachelor’s degrees Saturday were mostly giddy with excitement. But many expressed concern about finding jobs, burgeoning student loan debt and current national political turmoil.

Heather Gillis, a communications major from Petaluma who is already employed as a wedding planner, said many of her friends who are still looking for jobs cannot afford the high cost of living in the Bay Area.

“They’re having to move back home,” Gillis said.

Others, like Greg Lozano, a La Raza graduate from Los Angeles who was getting a degree in creative writing, worried about an uncertain future for people of color under President Donald Trump.

“It’s terrible,” said Lozano as he walked in a line toward the stage. “We’re living in a time when people think it’s OK to be completely racist.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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