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Many inspiring SRJC students among the 1,800 graduating virtually on Saturday

Jessica Cahill of Santa Rosa lost her home in the 2017 Tubbs fire. Lexi Straube ?of Sebastopol is a first-?generation college student who will be a rare Santa Rosa Junior College transfer to Stanford University. Vicente Peña Pérez of Forestville came to America with his family to get away from gang violence in Mexico.

They are three of nearly ?1,800 students graduating Saturday morning from SRJC, but they won’t be crossing a stage and handed their diplomas. Like many of their experiences, this year’s graduation will be a first: a virtual ceremony with everyone watching speeches and slideshows from home.

Large gatherings like traditional graduations have been restricted because of the coronavirus pandemic. But for many SRJC graduates, who have grown resilient after facing fires, floods and evacuations, the county outbreak of COVID-19 is another test to overcome.

Cahill, 20, still remembers the intensifying heat inside the car while she and her mother, Terry Cahill, sat in gridlock, fleeing the Tubbs fire as it ravaged the city’s Coffey Park neighborhood in which she was raised.

Jessica Cahill thought she was going to die that night, and the lingering trauma caused nightmares, anxiety and depression that required years of therapy to untangle.

It was an added challenge for a teen that had suffered several concussions playing soccer growing up. As a result, the Analy High School graduate had concentration and memory retention issues that required specialized school settings to complete routine schoolwork.

Cahill questioned whether she could go back to school after the fires, but she persevered, turning a tragic moment into a source of strength.

“I thought I was not going to be able to make it after the fires happened,” she said. “But it made me work harder. It made me prove to myself that I’m stronger than people think. Just because I went through a trauma doesn’t mean that it’s going to break me down.”

Her backbone became her family, friends, her boyfriend, Angelo Valdelomar, and Nancy Chinn, a disability specialist at SRJC and a constant advocate for her.

Having to work harder in school inspired Cahill to want to be a teacher, and help students with special needs that don’t always get the services they deserve, she said.

She’s gotten to test that mantra at Lattice Educational Achievement Preschool where she works, as well as the college’s child development center. Since the junior college closed the campus in March at the onset of the pandemic and distance learning took root, Cahill has embraced video editing and developed a passion for creating lessons for young students.

In the fall, she will take her next step toward becoming a teacher in her hometown when she enrolls at Sonoma State University.

Straube, 22, and her fiancée, Kyle Jones were in the office of their rural Sebastopol home two years ago when they heard a plopping sound coming from the hallway. The findings from the ensuing investigation were shocking.

There was a frog infestation in their bathroom. Rather than hurt the ecosystem, they built a terrarium and developed a system to release the frogs whenever the bathroom got crowded.

It’s become a go-to story for Straube when she needs one. So when she was filling out college applications last year, she used it to answer a writing prompt for Stanford University.

“I talked about how the frogs are always an icebreaker,” she said. “My scientist brain noticed they’re different colors as the season changes, or when they’re stressed they turn white.”

Stanford admission officials liked what they saw. So did the 11 other universities she applied to, including Cornell University, UC Berkeley and UCLA.

Straube was the first person in her family to attend college when she casually enrolled in SRJC after graduating from Sonoma Valley High School in 2015. Education wasn’t always a priority since she comes from a working-class family, who are members of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.

Straube said she skirted by in school until she got to SRJC and faced rigorous science and math classes that motivated her to commit to academics in a way she never had before.

Still, she never considered Stanford until her professors and counselors all lobbied her to do it, she said.

Now she represents that one SRJC student every few years who transfers to Stanford. She’s got roughly seven more years of school ahead as she pursues a career as a physician-scientist, inspired to be part of the solution when future pandemics threaten everyone she knows and cares for.

“These taxing times when the world is in disarray, it doesn’t scare me,” Straube said. “I yearn to be on the front lines helping people or researching the virus or treating patients. In that way, (my time at the JC) also centered me.”

The violence in Mexico City was getting worse and worse, and about five years ago it reached the Pérez family’s neighborhood when the cartel threatened his grandparents’ restaurant.

Since his mother was Cuban, the family could seek refuge in the U.S. But Pérez, 23, stayed behind a year to continue his education until it became clear he, too, needed to join them in Sonoma County.

Pérez didn’t speak English when he arrived. Driven to excel and give back to his parents, who work as farm laborers, Pérez became fluent, thrived in high-level math and science courses and became a campus ambassador for bright-eyed Latino students who are on the fence about college.

“All these programs have really helped me, starting with (the high school equivalency program), which connected me to others,” Pérez said. “You usually say you have a counselor or that one person that motivated you through the college, but really I had a lot of people. The list of names will be endless.”

Pérez is headed to UC Santa Cruz in the fall, with four associate degrees in math, physics and natural sciences in tow.

He is driven to become a researcher or theorist on gravitational physics after an internship at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee last year when he measured solar winds for one of the most recognized labs in the country.

His family has endured hardships since they planted roots in Sonoma County. Wildfires have threatened their Forestville home, and the pandemic left his parents unemployed for much of the last two months.

Explaining the natural universe is what drives Pérez most days. But this spring has been another reminder of what’s important - even if he doesn’t get to cross a commencement stage this year.

“We were together, all my family,” he said. “Even though we could lose material things, we were together.”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com.

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