If you find yourself staring at a line of students waiting to walk into a graduation ceremony this month, spend a few minutes considering how they arrived at that moment in the first place.
There will be 1,726 people graduating in Los Banos and Merced this week, with 1,726 different stories of how they earned their place.
Let us celebrate those milestones by sharing a handful of those tales.
MICHELLE GONZALEZ, AA Psychology, AAT Psychology, AA Social & Behavioral Sciences, AA Sociology
When everything shut down during the pandemic, most people rightfully saw danger and restriction.
Gonzalez, 33, also saw the doors to education open to her.
After just six semesters in Los Banos, she is leaving Merced College with four degrees and a goal to earn a B.A., a master’s and a Ph.D. in psychology.
Gonzalez chose psychology as a major after reading “The Choice” by Edith Eger in an English course at Merced College. The book is about a holocaust survivor who becomes a psychologist, and begins to understand that she can choose how she responds to her tragic past.
“I learned that no one should compare trauma,” she said. “No matter what we have experienced, we have all gone through trauma.”
Gonzalez—who moved to Los Banos with her husband Ryan and her now 12-year-old daughter Destiny in 2018—was recognized for her work this year, earning the Ed Walsh Outstanding Service Award from Alpha Gamma Sigma as well as the Live Your Dream Scholarship. She also still volunteers on campus as an ambassador in the Welcome Center.
“It’s the staff and the community here that made me want to be on campus [for work],” she said. “They’re all passionate people. They want so much to see everyone succeed. It’s so sweet.”
Gonzalez completed nearly all of her A.A. coursework online. The student, mother and wife loved the freedom to stop a video, take good notes, and restart when she was ready.
She will transfer to Stanislaus State this fall to complete her B.A. She wants to eventually treat patients struggling with their mental health.
“I’ve had psychologists who have seen me once and tried immediately to refer me to a psychiatrist who will prescribe me pills,” Gonzalez said. “That wasn’t what I needed. It isn’t always what is needed. Sometimes we need talk therapy.”
AMANDO SANDERS, AA in Psychology, AA Sociology, AAT General Education
Seven years ago, Sanders didn’t know he’d be walking outside the Valley State Prison gates as a free man, much less eventually walking across a stage as a Merced College graduate.
Sanders was released from VSP two months ago after serving 23 years of an original 30-year sentence. But he spent most of that time working to earn a second chance for his eventual life outside.
That second chance began roughly seven years ago. Transferred to VSP, Sanders began a formal college education thanks to Merced College’s Rising Scholars program.
“I wanted to be part of a social network, because a social network is so important in prison,” said Sanders, who is a member of the academic honor society Alpha Gamma Sigma. “I saw the results guys in Rising Scholars were getting. … In my past, negativity overshadowed positivity. I wanted positivity to have more weight in my life.”
Rising Scholars is an academic pipeline, in 65 of the 116 community colleges in California, for currently and formerly incarcerated individuals to get a college education.
Sanders, 42, now lives and works in construction in Riverside, while also studying to earn certification as a medical peer support mentor, working with others who experienced the prison system.
He wants to eventually earn his B.A. in sociology and work as a drug and alcohol abuse addiction counselor. He starts at CSU San Bernardino in the fall.
So what will he feel walking across the commencement stage?
HECTOR VELAZCO, AAT Kinesiology, AA Social & Behavioral Sciences
Velazco, 19, saw no need to leave the place where he was raised just to study or continue his football career after graduating from Le Grand High. He successfully did both 5 miles from his house.
“I wanted to be close to my family, so they could still be a part of me playing football,” Velazco said.
At Merced College, he maxed out as a student and an athlete, earning All-State Academic Honors (3.5 overall GPA) and being named an All-Conference left tackle for the 2022 season.
Since Velazco excelled both ways, he earned a chance to continue with both next fall. He is transferring to Western New Mexico University to play football for the Mustangs and finish his undergraduate education.
Velazco will continue studying kinesiology so he can become a chiropractor. Halfway through his college journey, Velazco already knows he wants to return to Merced County to set up a chiropractic clinic.
“I look at a chiropractor like a mechanic,” he said. “Chiropractors help the body when it’s in pain or not moving well. Coming from a Hispanic household, I’ve always seen relatives with back problems from working the fields or construction. That always stood out to me. It’s tough work, and I want to give back and help them feel better.”
ELENA ALTAMIRANO-OROZCO, AS-T Business
Altamirano-Orozco won’t be walking in graduation ceremonies.
The Admissions & Records Coordinator at the Los Banos Campus is too busy organizing paperwork and helping to organize the graduation ceremony itself for up to 200 other Los Banos graduates.
Altamirano-Orozco doesn’t need a ceremony to mark the five years since she graduated with her first degree and later suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm that stalled her education and nearly took her life. Or to acknowledge the 10 years since she started working at the Los Banos campus. Or to realize it’s been 17 years since she steeled herself to divorce someone who was subjecting her to domestic violence.
The Los Banos campus had the resources and the heart Altamirano-Orozco needed to start anew.
“The culture here in Los Banos is that everyone roots you on when they know you’re trying to step up and complete goals,” she said.
Altamirano-Orozco clung to that support while she healed and waited for the green light from her neurosurgeon to resume her studies. She worked through the pain, too, supporting other Los Banos students as they worked on their own goals.
“It doesn’t take anything away from me to not be walking at graduation,” she said. “Since I was held up so much due to my health, it is very cool to finally meet the transfer requirements.”
Altamirano-Orozco will transfer to Cal State Stanislaus for the Spring 2024 semester to study business leadership. She’s eager to lead her own team in a business or education setting.
MAI LIA YANG, AA Health Sciences; AA Social & Behavioral Sciences, CNA Certification, AA Psychology, AAT General Studies
Yang, 24, carries responsibility as a first-generation college student—she was born in Thailand and came to the U.S. in 2005—and as a first-time mother—she has a 15-month-old son named Chuseng.
Her life would have been different in Thailand—in the U.S., she is still free to pursue an education on her own terms. For example, she was struggling at Fresno City College on her first try at college, but she used that freedom and left. She landed at Merced College instead.
“Honestly, Merced College is smaller, and I have family here,” she said. “There was more opportunity here, and it was easier to make connections and talk to counselors to get the help they wanted to give me.”
Yang, who has been working in the Extended Opportunities Programs & Services (EOPS) Office to give back to students like her, wants to become a registered nurse to help strangers, herself and her family.
She has applied to Licensed Vocational Nursing programs at Merced College and Madera College.
She understands that pursuing those larger goals means she has more years of asking family to look after her son, and more years of missed moments with him.
“Sometimes I think about everything that is happening to me and force myself to understand that all of those difficulties will get better, and things will fall into place,” Yang said. “I have many great goals and achievements to come. I think about that to push me forward.”
RYAN WANG, AA Political Science
Wang wasn’t that keen on attending Merced College in the middle of a pandemic, or at all, two years ago.
“They were one of the only schools offering in-person classes at the time,” said the Turlock High graduate. “I only fell in love with Merced College once I got here.”
Now Wang, 20, easily makes the case for the value of community college education to whomever will listen.
He gained that perspective in several ways, including serving as the Student Trustee in 2022-23 for the Merced College Board of Trustees.
“Going to class with adult learners, veterans, K-12 kids, students straight out of high school, returning students, and seeing everyone come together to better themselves through education, an accessible education, gave me a sense of my responsibility as a trustee to serve those students,” Wang said. “And it just made me happy to be in a place where everyone wants to better themselves.”
Wang said he will pursue a law degree after he earns an undergraduate degree at UCLA. He might also get into local politics.
Wherever he lands in 10 years, he will always look back at Merced College with warmth for one reason.
“It’s the people here,” he said. “I’ve just had some incredible professors and great kids in my classes who were so interested and engaged. There were people helping me at every turn. The people here, they’re really, really good people.”