Families and friends gathered hours early at the outdoor amphitheater of the Hyatt Regency in Newport Beach for the commencement of the OCCC’s largest graduating class on Friday, June 17. The crowds were so early that they witnessed the rehearsal, clapping and cheering as if it were the actual event. Graduate Maribel Pavia said her mother even cried as the graduates rehearsed the procession. By the time the ceremony started, over 600 audience members had assembled to support the 63 graduates.
Dr. Christina Chavez-Reyes, a professor from Cal Poly Pomona, was a particularly strong voice of support through her keynote speech. She observed that by returning to school to complete their diplomas, this group of young people makes up a very small, but admirable, percentage of those who do not complete high school on their first try. Other notable supporters were Dick Dittmar of the OCCC Board of Directors, and Buzz Breedlove, the Executive Director of John Muir Charter School, who conferred the diplomas.
Not all the graduates grasped right away the significance of what they have achieved. Tony Takapu, one of the graduates who spoke, admitted that he had not intended to come to the graduation ceremony, because he felt that at 22 years old he was too old to take part and should have graduated five years ago. However, when all the teachers, his case manager and the executive director appeared at his work to encourage him to attend and speak, he finally agreed to come. In his speech, he said, “I don’t think they will fully understand how much of an impact that simple visit had on me, and it is because of things like that that I can say that the OCCC is, without a doubt, different from any other program I have ever been a part of or even heard of.”
Despite the odds, these students not only finished their diplomas, but accomplished much along the way. For instance, Danny Ledesma became the first OCCC valedictorian this year. The fifth of eight children, he is the first in his family to graduate high school, and he has done it with honors. Despite difficult circumstances, his work ethic and determination have made him stand out academically.
During Executive Director Katharyn Bandoni’s speech, she observed that on top of earning their high school diplomas while at the OCCC, 31 graduates have earned certifications in areas like forklift certification and CPR, 35 have received at least one monthly award for perfect attendance and 45 have earned scholarships totaling nearly $150,000. They have sweated, they have striven and they have succeeded. Fittingly, a corpsmember named Malik Nash-Bey coined the theme for graduation this year: “Chasing Dreams.” These young people have certainly achieved theirs.