SRJC celebrates diversity with largest-ever number of Latino graduates

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Santa Rosa Junior College graduates, on the whole, are a resilient bunch, and speaker after speaker Saturday touched on that theme — the importance of overcoming adversity — as the campus celebrated its 100th graduating class, including the largest-ever group of Latino students.

The class of 2019 was as diverse as the colorful garlands they wore around their necks while seated under stately oak trees at the Lawrence A. Bertolini Quad on a sunny commencement day. The oldest graduate was 68. The youngest was Conan Skaife, 15. He sat in a wheelchair, still recovering from an emergency surgery for appendicitis just days before graduation.

“He was determined to attend graduation no matter what,” said Shari Skaife, Conan’s mom, beaming as fellow classmates checked in during the morning festivities.

In his address, SRJC President Frank Chong roused the crowd of 600 students, accompanied by hundreds of their loved ones.

“The time is yours, Class of 2019, to find yourself and your passions,” Chong said.

Students Nick Rilea and Sophia Porter delivered impassioned speeches to mark the occasion. Each told stories about how the life lessons they learned while attending SRJC helped shape them into confident and successful leaders.

“I am graduating with four degrees, each of which are environmentally focused,” said Porter, who was barefoot during the ceremony to pay homage to her Hawaiian roots.

“This college gave me the opportunity to coordinate and plan the first ever Earth Week this year and start a community garden on campus,” she said. “Speaking to you all today is an honor because this is the greatest community I have ever been part of.”

Business and life partners Osvaldo Jimenez, 32, and Christian Sullberg, 31, co-founders of three food establishments in Sonoma County, were two of the youngest people ever to be invited commencement speakers.

As owners of the popular Noble Folk Ice Cream and Pie Bar in Healdsburg and two other spots in Santa Rosa and Healdsburg, they focused their remarks on what it took for them as individuals and later as a couple to follow their dreams.

Jimenez, an SRJC alumnus and an immigrant, said attending the college allowed him to be himself and get involved in ways he had never before felt comfortable enough to do.

“Being undocumented you oftentimes feel invisible,” said Jimenez, who serves as a local Democratic Assembly Delegate. “But being part of the SRJC community made me stronger.”

Throughout the ceremony a handful of students were highlighted by faculty for persevering through hardships, including substance addiction and financial setbacks.

Nearly 1,700 students were expected to receive degrees this year, including 587 Latino students, a school record.

About 2,300 degrees were awarded, since most students earn more than one degree, said SRJC spokeswoman Erin Bricker.

Cheers and screams echoed in the quad as the names of graduates were read aloud.

Sereana Banuve, 24, had a large number of her family in the crowd. All are immigrants from Fiji. Saturday’s accomplishment was special for Banuve, who left her home as a teenager and struggled for years to assimilate to life in the North Bay, which felt completely different than her home on the islands, she said.

“This was a long journey for me and I am feeling a lot of emotion as I graduate today,” said Banuve, who studied business administration. “This is the beginning of something great.”

Ricardo Sandoval immigrated to the United States from Jalisco, Mexico just 10 years ago. He fought back tears as he waited for his name to be called by school administrators.

“I really did not expect to be here since I had to start my life over again 10 years ago and had to learn even the most basic English,” said Sandoval, 25, who studied health care.

Sandoval plans to continue working as an interpreter for Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa, where he helps others like him who are first-generation immigrants trying to navigate the complex health care system.

“My dream is to eventually become a nurse so that way when patients from a Latino background come to the hospital they can see someone who looks like them, someone who is an advocate,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

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