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.