Editor's note: This corrects what Maria Saldana did with her classes.
COSTA MESA — Maria Saldana cried when she applied for graduation — and after picking up her cap and gown — but the moment still wasn't real for her.
It wasn't until Tuesday night's graduation rehearsal, when she saw her named cleared to walk, that it sank in. After 17 years of taking classes, she would finally be finishing her associate's degree in child development from Orange Coast College.
And she cried again, this time, on the way home.
"I feel very proud of myself," Saldana, 44, said Wednesday afternoon in her Westside home. "I think I came a long way."
Saldana has juggled the roles of student, wife and mother of two — plus a full-time job — for nearly two decades. On Wednesday night, she added graduate to that list of accomplishments, joining more than 2,500 students at the OCC's 63rd annual commencement.
Saldana struggled to take care of her family and find the money for classes and textbooks, all while still trying to fully grasp the English language.
She kept going to show her two sons the importance of education.
Daniel Saldana, 21, graduated from WyoTech and Richard Saldana, 20, is a sophomore at Cal State Fullerton.
"I feel like I got my point across," she said.
An immigrant's story
Saldana, then 12, came to Santa Ana from Mexico in 1980 with her father, mother, two sisters and eight brothers.
Her mother and father came from a town with no school. Her mother had no education. Her father could only read and write a little.
Saldana had a first-grade education and, like the rest of her family, didn't speak English. She wasn't allowed to go to school in the U.S.; she had to stay home and help her mother around the house.
The family enrolled her youngest brother in school, even though it was Saldana's dream to become a teacher.
When Saldana was 16, she enrolled herself in Santa Ana High School. She learned to read and write and, four years later, became her family's first high school graduate. Her father got out of the car on the way to graduation and walked home.
"It meant a lot to me, but I was very sad that my parents didn't value education," she said.
Her brother took her out to dinner after the ceremony.
"That was it," she said. "Nobody said anything or did anything."
'She has it in her'
Saldana's parents remained resolute.
"They said college is not for women," she recalled.
Her dream of being a teacher sat dormant. The importance of higher education also took on new meaning as she watched two sisters stay in bad marriages because they had no education and no way of supporting themselves.
After finishing high school, Saldana married Silbestre Saldana, had two boys and began working at Marshalls at night.
Saldana's educational dream came alive again when Daniel's Head Start preschool teachers advised her to go back to school. They enrolled her in the Head Start college classes through OCC.
"I feel like they gave me so much and they empowered me," she said.
She soon started working at Head Start as an assistant before becoming a full-time preschool teacher in Huntington Beach.
Medical emergencies forced Saldana to stop and care for her family at different times.
When her oldest son went to college, she stopped again, unable to pay tuition at more than one campus.
Through it all, Richard said watching his mom has been inspiring.
"She's showing me that she can do it. She has it in her, so I can do it," he said.
A celebration this time
On Tuesday night, sleep was impossible for Saldana. The excitement of the next day consumed her, and on Wednesday morning, she was a ball of nerves.
She finally tried on for the first time the cap and gown that had been hanging in her house.
"I see myself when I graduated from high school," she said after looking in the mirror.
There will be a celebration this time. Her graduation party is scheduled for Saturday.
As with high school commencement, Saldana's father won't come to the ceremony, but her mother is coming to the party. Better yet, she gave Saldana a hug and kiss and told her she was proud.
Saldana doesn't want her story to end here. She wants to get her bachelor's degree from Cal State Fullerton or the University of Phoenix.
She hopes it won't take another 17 years.
"I want to see if I can do it faster," she said.