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For Emma Towslee, Saturday was a time for celebrating triumph over personal hardships, recognizing the power of community and highlighting the promise of a bright future for Sonoma State University’s largest-ever graduating class.

Towslee, who earned a bachelor’s degree from SSU in biology, with minors in chemistry and business, is the first in her family to graduate from college. The Sacramento native, who said she paid for her own education, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes two months into her freshman year, a condition that left her sick and terrified.

Now, almost four years later, buoyed by her campus community, she plans this fall to attend St. George’s University in the Caribbean for medical school. She hopes to open a clinic for children with diabetes.

“I want to remind you what you’ve accomplished. I want to remind you that whatever cards you’ve been dealt, you can overcome with the choices you make,” Towslee said Saturday in her speech to graduates of the School of Science and Technology at the Green Music Center inside Weill Hall. Towslee overcame other hardships, including one experience she described as a “#MeToo moment” — using the motto popularized by the movement against sexual assault and harassment.

“Look at where you are today,” she told fellow graduates. “May your new beginning be filled with happiness and science.”

In her speech, SSU President Judy Sakaki referred to an “especially challenging year” for the campus and broader community.

October’s wildfires claimed the homes of 81 students, faculty and staff, SSU spokesman Paul Gullixson said.

Sakaki and her husband, Patrick McCallum, lost their Fountaingrove house, from which they barely escaped before dawn on Oct. 9. The campus, which has 9,300 students, closed for nine days during the fires.

“I’ve often said that the beauty of our campus lies not only in the trees and gorgeous grounds here, but also in the principles each member of our community embodies as Seawolves each day: giving back to our community, taking responsibility for our community, and equally important, turning to one another in times of need, and drawing strength from our community” Sakaki said.

For Gary Cline, who walked in Saturday’s ceremony but plans to graduate in December with degrees in computer science and statistics, the loss was personal. The Fountaingrove home where he lived since fourth grade was destroyed in the fires. Cline and his parents escaped with their calico cat, Polka Dot, and their small poodle-mix, Toby, and a few other belongings.

The semester was difficult, but the family is now renting a home in Petaluma.

“It was rough, but I managed to make it through,” said the Santa Rosa native. “It was a little weird until we got a permanent place to rent.”

SSU graduated 2,706 students, a 2 percent increase from last year that Gullixson attributed to initiatives to expand enrollment and ensure students are able to get into the classes they need to graduate in four years.

For James O’Brien, whose nephew, Cameron Sean O’Brien-Bailey, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, Saturday was a proud day. O’Brien graduated from SSU in 1992 with a business degree, and has several other family members who have graduated from or are enrolled in the college.

Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

“I’m very proud, I’m very happy and I’m very thankful,” he said. “(The graduates should) put that degree to work. Go out there and make it happen with the knowledge you’ve obtained at SSU.”

Graduates are entering a job market that in Sonoma County at least, just recorded the lowest unemployment rate in 18 years, according to the latest state figures. Employers are continuing to create new jobs, while fewer people are looking for work, driving the unemployment rate down to 2.5 percent in April, down from 2.8 percent in March and 3.3 percent a year ago.

But, they are also faced with a tight housing market, where already-high prices were driven up after fires destroyed nearly 5,300 homes in Sonoma County. That’s a concern for Monterey native Jazmin Morales, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in molecular cell biology.

“Housing (costs) have affected Sonoma,” said Morales, who lives in Rohnert Park. “It’s put people back in life. It’s put people’s lives on hold.”

Graduations continue today, with 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. ceremonies for the School of Social Science and a 5 p.m. ceremony for the School of Education.

Honorary degree recipients today include George L. Ortiz, co-founder of the California Human Development Corp. based in Santa Rosa and a longtime advocate for underserved populations, and retired SSU Professor of Education H. Andréa Neves.

Sakaki left Saturday’s graduates with well-wishes.

“Graduates, my hope for you is that you live true to yourselves as Seawolves, that you make space for true resilience and recovery whenever you face life’s challenges and most of all that you remember the lessons of grit, that you take your passion, compassion, strength, courage and perseverance with you.”

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or hannah.beausang@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.

Editor's note: This story has been revised to note that the Sonoma State University campus was closed for nine days during the October 2017 fires. A previous version gave an longer, inaccurate length of time for the closure.

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