For Maria Teresa Robinson, Friday was the day she achieved her American dream. The 44-year-old Mexican immigrant was ending an arduous four-year journey toward an associate of arts degree at Oxnard College.
“I came to this country seven years ago,” Robinson said during the commencement ceremony as tears welled in her eyes. “It was a time of transition, and I had problems and sometimes pain. I did not know how to speak English. I had a challenge before me.
“One day, somebody told me about Oxnard College and I decided to come here. That was the day when the sky’s doors were opened to me.”
Robinson was one of nearly 300 students who under sunny skies and a warm breeze received their associate degrees at Oxnard College. About 400 students were eligible to graduate.
The students were among the more than 2,000 residents who graduated from the three Ventura County community colleges this week.
At Moorpark College on Friday, student body President Mike Madrid told the audience that community colleges provide people with less money or different backgrounds an opportunity for higher education.
After high school, Madrid said, he went to work in Arizona, but was troubled that he never had applied himself at school.
“I realized that I was limiting my options,” said Madrid, 25. “I came back to California, where any resident has the benefit of open access to higher education.”
His story was echoed by students throughout the county.
High school dropout Juli Bennett, 25, was one of 14 students in the Moorpark graduating class to have earned a perfect 4.0 grade-point average.
“I was accepted to Humboldt State,” she said with a beaming smile. Touching the cap that sat precariously on her head, she added, “I wouldn’t have gotten in if I hadn’t gone here first.”
Her only complaint: “I wish someone would redesign these caps.”
At Oxnard College’s graduation, each graduate was given two minutes to speak.
Many thanked their families, God and friends, but not all expressed their gratitude in English. Kim-Chi Vu thanked her parents in Vietnamese, Sachiko Nukaya praised the college faculty in Japanese, Erna Satene Lahdenpaa thanked her friends and family in German, and Maria Sanchez Serrato praised her family in Spanish.
The ceremony included a color guard presentation by the Naval Construction Battalion Center of Port Hueneme and speeches by several college officials.
College President Elise D. Schneider said that in the past decade, the number of Oxnard College students transferring to higher institutions has increased. This year, about 251 students plan to continue their education in a four-year college, contrasted with 175 last year.
William L. Shilley, who teaches alcohol and drug education, told students that graduation was the beginning of a journey they must carry out with diligence.
“There is nothing final about graduation. This is simply a time of transition,” he said. “Transition suggests struggle and pain and the courage to meet them.”
One of those on a journey was Jesus Cervantes, 22, who graduated with an associate of science degree. He will start a pre-med program at UC Irvine in the fall, he said.
Cervantes, the first in his family to attend college, said he worked full time as a janitorial worker at Channel Islands High School while attending Oxnard College.
“After 3 1/2 years of work, this is like payoff time,” Cervantes said. “Tonight I am celebrating with my family.”
For others, their years at Oxnard College were enough.
“I wanted to find out what it was like to be a student or a young person those days,” said 62-year-old Robert Kelly, a philosophy major.
Kelly sold his real estate business in 1991 when he enrolled at Oxnard College.
Kelly, who plans to attend Cal State Northridge for a degree in philosophy, said he was surprised at the opportunities to learn offered young people.
“The kids know so much more than I knew at the same age,” he said. “If I have come this far, I feel comfortable that they will be able to go beyond that.”
More than 1,000 students graduated in Ventura College’s ceremony Thursday.