Graduates, age 18 to 76, celebrate at Santa Rosa Junior College’s 1st in-person graduation since pandemic start

Thousands of excited family members and friends on Saturday cheered on this year’s 447 graduates at the school’s first in-person ceremony since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.|

Cloudy skies and chilly weather weren’t enough to dampen spirits Saturday as the Santa Rosa Junior College Class of 2022 celebrated commencement.

Stands at the college’s Bailey Field were filled by 9 a.m. with thousands of excited family members and friends ready to cheer on this year’s graduating class at the school’s first in-person ceremony since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ranging from age 18 to 76, more than 1,500 students received degrees this year, according to the college, which marked its 103rd commencement.

For graduate Grace Gideon, attending the school greatly impacted her personal life.

“Without the connections I made at the (Junior College), I would not be alive right now,” said Gideon, who presented a speech, in addition to fellow classmate Diego Leon, to open the ceremony.

Student health services at the two-year junior college put Gideon in contact with a therapist when she was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, she said, and her instructors gave extra support while she was pregnant, even babysitting her son when she took an exam.

In his speech, Leon reflected on his journey to graduation, which began as a child in the foster care system. Now, he is graduating with a 3.9 GPA, he said.

“We are the future!” exclaimed Jackie Elward, mayor of Rohnert Park and a Santa Rosa Junior College alumna, as she led the graduates in a chant. As commencement speaker, she encouraged the class to join her mission of making the community a better place.

The path to graduation for the Class of 2022 was riddled with obstacles, including an ongoing global pandemic and multiple devastating local wildfires.

Students also faced personal struggles as they worked toward their degree, like Ana Briceno who earned an associate degree in business after she became pregnant at age 16, dropped out of high school and raised six children. Her family proudly watched from the stands Saturday as she accepted her diploma.

Though the journey was rocky for many 2022 graduates, Saturday marked the beginning of “a new chapter,” as Leon said.

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