Ninety-seven young men and women peered up at the stage of historic Plummer Auditorium as the Honorable Joe T. Perez, a Superior Court Judge for Orange County, demanded a second time, “Do you have courage?” Under their blue mortar boards, their eyes closed in relief as he continued, “Of course you do!”
Indeed, they do, along with hard work and dedication, qualities Judge Perez also pointed out in his commencement address. These graduates, the largest graduating class of the Orange County Conservation Corps to date, made the decision to return to high school after dropping out. They committed to completing their diplomas when it would have been easier to continue working or raising children without coursework. Now, they stand as examples to their children, their siblings,
their cousins and the children in their neighborhood.
As Valedictorian Jesica Venegas said, “Every time I see my children and how well they are doing in school, I tell myself that if I want them to become someone in life, I have to start with myself.”
Judge Perez told the graduates about a courageous young man who went to Logan Elementary School, a segregated “Mexican school” in Santa Ana, in 1938 and went on to become Orange County’s first Latino lawyer, Municipal Court Judge, then Superior Court Judge. Not long after him came Frances Munoz, the first Latina judge in the United States, also from Orange County. That young man is Judge Perez’s father, Judge James O. Perez. “He would tell you: use [courage, hard work, and dedication] to continue your education,” said Judge Perez to the graduates. “Each one of you possesses these traits – I promise you that – and that you can use these things to do great things. Do not stop your education.”
Mayra Lopez, named a Corpsmember of the Year, intends to follow that advice by attending Santa Ana College this fall, then transferring to UCI to study criminal justice. “People say that once I get my diploma, it’s the end of my education, but for me, it’s just the beginning,” Lopez said.