A century after 19 students formed the inaugural class of Santa Rosa Junior College, launching a Sonoma County institution that has since enrolled an estimated 1.7 million students, the Class of 2018 took its place in history Saturday — each graduate marking a milestone in their own lives and an era shaped by the school’s presence.
The graduates ranged from 17 years old to 72, and reflected a widening spectrum of cultural and ethnic diversity, their colorful ceremonial stoles declaring membership in study and community groups, their caps a canvas for individual expression, adorned with flowers, sparkles and stenciled slogans.
Author Gaye LeBaron, the commencement speaker and an SRJC graduate from the class of 1955, noted the procession “looked very different than the one I was in” — a group of mostly teenagers with a smattering of returned Korean War veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill.
Sabrina Rawson, 47, was among the hundreds of students who participated in Saturday’s ceremony. A mother who had five children before starting her education, she served two years as student trustee while studying history, while also battling lung disease.
“I never thought I’d be here,” said Rawson, who until three weeks ago walked around campus with an oxygen bottle to aid her breathing. Now, she’s off to Sonoma State as a transfer student. Her graduation stole bore the word “Umoja,” a Swahili word for unity, reflecting her involvement in an African-American study community.
She smiled widely moments after collecting her diploma.
“Those life challenges they were talking about, that was me,” she said.
The school, which has struggled with declining enrollment and related budget pressures, nevertheless graduated its largest class ever this year, at 1,775 students, according to President Frank Chong. Many pursued double or triple majors, so a total of 2,370 associate degrees were earned.
Completing their time at SRJC in its 100th year added an element of distinction. And the accomplishment for many was all the more remarkable because of the disruption wrought by historic wildfires that last fall displaced more than 1,000 students and shut down campus for a full two weeks.
Those days of tragedy and loss were a catalyst for kindness, Chong said, with donations of food, clothing and money going to those affected at SRJC, including employees, and thousands of free meals prepared by culinary students for first responders. Many from the campus volunteered in shelters, helping those in need.
And when classes resumed, extra work went into ensuring affected students could complete their studies, Chong said.
“I believe our community showed its strength through the recovery,” he said.
Board of Trustees President Maggie Fishman acknowledged as well as the support students received from family and friends.
“I’m OK with it being about you,” she said. “Each of you took a different journey to get here.”
Graduate Gino Davenport, 27, who earned high honors while completing his pre-nursing studies, said he had no words to fully capture his emotions.
“I’m feeling fortunate,” said the former foster child, who had his own children before enrolling at SRJC. “I’m a student that might not have made it without a place like this.”
Another graduate, Cytlali Muñoz, 22, wore a snapshot of a man and baby — Muñoz as an infant — on her mortarboard, with the words, “I smile to the sky and think of you.”