Santa Rosa Junior College students celebrate career certificates

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Cow bells clanged, families hugged, flowers and balloons were gifted and Santa Rosa Junior College students heard uplifting speeches Friday night about the importance of pursuing their dreams. But it wasn’t your typical graduation ceremony.

Most students weren’t wearing gowns, and no degrees were received. Nevertheless, hundreds of students — many dressed as professionals in their fields — joyfully received specialized certificates they earned from the college’s career education program.

The celebratory event started four years ago. Jerry Miller, the college’s senior dean of career education and economic development, said there used to be mini ceremonies held for students who obtain career certificates in trades. But he decided to make a larger event out of it to recognize students who may not be obtaining an academic degree, but were accomplished in their own right.

“They feel honored for their accomplishments because they were kind of shut out of graduation,” Miller said. “It’s really fun, feel-good day.”

Students in each department, including public safety, business, child development, dental, culinary and more, stood and cheered when their group was called on by deans, who each shared their stories in a series of short speeches. The college this month awarded career certificates to 2,700 students.

‘We’re an aging population in Sonoma County, so somebody has to replace us. Somebody needs to fill these jobs that are being vacated,” said Miller, a faculty member at the college since 1993 who is retiring this year. “That’s our job as a community college, to serve the needs of the community.”

The junior college is set to hold its main commencement ceremony Saturday at 9 a.m.

Just over half of SRJC students are enrolled in a career education courses, and of those, Miller said 30% are skilled builders, meaning they enroll in only one or two courses before returning to work for increased pay or promotions.

That’s the case for Eric Avila-Ponce, 28, who enrolled at college after he got married and became a parent. He got a job as a lubricant technician three months ago at a local Toyota dealership. His two new certificates — automotive electrical and brakes and suspensions — will help with work promotions, he said.

“It’s been tough, but you gotta stick it out and push forward. I can definitely move up now in my career and support my family,” said Avila-Ponce, whose wife and 2-year-old son were among a slew of family members who came to campus Friday to cheer him on.

Avila-Ponce also took a smog-check class this spring, and has plans to take the state test for certification in that field, plus complete his associate’s degree by early next year. He arrived on campus Friday straight from a shift at the dealership, staying in his work clothes.

“I feel great,” he said. “I love working with my hands.”

Students said they were proud to be recognized Friday for their accomplishments outside of the traditional academic track. The estimated crowd for the ceremony numbered about 1,000, according to campus officials.

Azucena Rodriguez Arroyo, 25, attended the junior college under the protection of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy — for undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. She said she had a lot of self-doubt as the first in her family to finish her education at a collegiate level.

“It’s a struggle trying to get out there. You feel like some doors don’t open for you. I’m so grateful to instructors who’ve helped me throughout,” Rodriguez Arroyo said.

She began attending school part-time in fall 2015 and for the past two years she’s worked as an assistant at the college’s career hub office, which helps connect students with internships and work opportunities.

She earned an administrative assistant certificate this spring after taking classes directly related to her career. She learned how to market herself on a resume, oversee office duties and improved her typing skills.

“I felt like it was really practical and something I would really use in a job setting,” she said.

Rodriguez Arroyo was thrilled when she was offered an administrative assistant job this week at a local business.

“I feel like I’ve accomplished something that I wasn’t sure I could do,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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