College of Marin students Juan Camara Pech and Carolina Zaragoza both overcame several adversities – and the coronavirus pandemic – to graduate this month.
Camara Pech and Zaragoza, who are part of a student body who have overcome distance learning and other challenges to succeed academically, are the student speakers for the college’s first in-person commencement ceremony in two years.
“I am pleased that our student results are consistent with pre-pandemic numbers, despite the challenges of the pandemic,” College President David Wain Coon said in a statement to the school community. “Thank you for sticking with your education and thank you for staying with us.”
More than 400 students will receive degrees and certificates at the college’s 95th annual commencement ceremony Friday at 6:00 p.m. on the outdoor Kentfield campus. Graduates of 2020 and 2021, whose graduation ceremonies were held online, are also invited to participate, Wain Coon said.
Camara Pech and Zaragoza both said they were grateful for the support and guidance they found in college.
Camara Pech, 23, of Novato is a US Army veteran, first-generation college graduate, and first-generation immigrant from Yucatan, Mexico. He was a student member of the college’s board of trustees and will attend Stanford University in the fall. He plans to go to law school and pursue a career as a criminal defense attorney.
He graduated with an associate’s degree in sociology.
“One thing I enjoyed most about my experience is being part of the Puente learning community and finding mentors who have been a constant support throughout this learning process that was higher education,” said Camara Pech, a graduate of the Novato High School 2016.
The Puente Project Learning Community provides support and guidance for Latino or Chicano students.
“They always tried to make sure I felt supported outside of the academic play and taught me what I needed to know to be successful,” said Camara Pech.
Zaragoza, 27, from Novato, is a single mother of three who first started college in 2012. After 10 years – including two years during which she and her children suffered from homelessness and food insecurity – she graduates with an associate’s degree.
She will attend Sonoma State University in the fall and plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and pursue a career in law enforcement.
Zaragoza, a 2012 graduate of San Marin High School, credits the college’s Department of Advanced Opportunities and Services (EOPS) with helping her survive and thrive. EOPS is a program for low-income students.
Becky Reetz, an EOPS staffer, and her father baked cookies for some of the student participants every day, Zaragoza said.
“When I was homeless, there were times when I didn’t have money to support myself and my daughter – or money to go to school – I had to choose between the two,” Zaragoza said.
“Those cookies Becky’s dad made got me through the day,” she said.
Students graduating Friday range in age from 71-year-old Caryl Grubbs to 15-year-old Juniper Yoshihara. Grubbs earned an associate’s degree in architecture and Yoshihara an associate’s degree in music.
A total of 132 students earned an Associate of Arts degree; 86 an associate of science degree; 116 an Associate of Arts to transfer; 63 earned an Associate of Science for the transfer; and 51 have received a certificate of achievement, according to the college.
Camara Pech said it was “definitely an honor and a blessing” to graduate and see a way forward.
“With that comes a lot of responsibility,” he said. “Most people in my community come from an underrepresented and marginalized community and don’t have money or access to education like in other communities.”
Camara Pech said he would advise his fellow students to ask for help if needed and try to find supportive communities within the school. He was also a member of the Alpha Gamma Sigma honor society and the school’s Social Justice Club.
“Try to connect with people who can teach you things, things about social capital, things about cultural capital,” he said. “That’s a really big thing with underserved communities — they don’t really know how to do things, like enroll in college.”
For Zaragoza, the key is “never to be ashamed” of asking for help, she said.
For example, she said, college staff were happy to provide their children with Christmas gifts in the form of gift cards and a Thanksgiving holiday dinner. The school also had a free lunch for low-income students.
“Another girl told me she was embarrassed to go to COM’s free lunch,” Zaragoza said. “I said to her, ‘You want to get through school, right? You need a full belly to be successful.’”