A pair of historic commencement ceremonies were held at Merced College last week to honor the Class of 2023, with hundreds of students crossing the stage in Merced and Los Banos.

The Los Banos Campus, which has been a part of Merced College for more than 50 years, held its inaugural commencement ceremony on Thursday, May 25. Nearly 100 students from the Westside took the opportunity to celebrate their graduation in their own backyard, joined by hundreds of family members and several distinguished guests from the college and community.

Those students were treated to a full commencement experience, with faculty and administrators in full regalia, Pomp & Circumstance in the air, and a keynote address from John Spevak, a former vice president of Merced College who served for several years as dean of the Los Banos Campus.

Spevak shared his perspective on the original vision for the Los Banos Campus and the many years of hard work and dedication that were needed it to fulfill its potential and become a robust, integral piece of the Merced Community College District.

“Graduates, I hope you take the story of the Merced College Los Banos Campus as an inspiration for each of your lives,” Spevak said. “Dream big. Have a vision for your life that will bring you fulfillment not just in a career, but in life. Use the support of others along the way. But be prepared to do the hard work that’s required to make your dream, your vision, a reality.”

The following day, Merced College held its 60th commencement ceremony at the main campus in Merced. More than 500 graduates gathered on Don Odishoo Field at Stadium ’76

All told, more than 3,000 degrees and certificates have been earned by Merced College students for the 2022-23 academic year, with 1,600 degrees and 1,489 certificates being awarded to 1,726 students in this year’s class—the highest totals since before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

At the Merced ceremony, Assemblywoman Esmeralda Soria shared her tale of growing up in the Central Valley, and the many obstacles and challenges she overcame in order to obtain her education and establish her career.

“Don’t let any setback define your success,” Soria said. “Trials in life are temporary, but they will make you stronger. Build the strength you need to continue moving, because people are counting on you. … Our community needs you, the Central Valley needs you, and you are the future!”

The Class of 2023 includes 425 students who are graduating with honors, having earned a grade-point average of 3.50 or better with a minimum of 45 units completed. And 31 of those students have earned Superintendent’s Honors by maintaining a GPA of 4.0 with at least 36 units completed.

“For many of you, tonight represents a better future, a prosperous beginning, a pathway out of poverty, and a steppingstone to your career or next pursuit in higher education,” President Chris Vitelli told the graduates. “It is my sincere hope that you leave here tonight not only proud of your personal achievements, but also with a sense of pride in your newest alma mater, Merced College.”

Both ceremonies featured emotional messages from student speakers.

In Los Banos, Caitlin Boyer shared that her father had passed away the morning of the ceremony. Boyer, a returning student who graduated with a pair of associate degrees in criminal justice and social and behavioral science, told of the false starts she encountered early in her educational life and the value in continuing to strive toward one’s goals.

“Life is not easy,” Boyer said. “There are going to be wonderful, beautiful times, and there will be times that will challenge you to your core. Understand that these difficult times are beautiful too, and they are making you into a force to be reckoned with.”

Stacey Ramos-Avila, the student speaker at the Merced ceremony, lost her husband in a car accident years ago, leaving her a single mother to four children. She recalled the knock at her door when she received the news, and the difficulties she later overcame in order to pursue her education and reclaim her life and dreams.

“Don’t wait for life to come knocking on your door,” Ramos-Avila said. “Find the way to awaken your inner drive and motivation. Your life is full of possibilities. Embrace that potential and take action to chase your dreams and live the life you were meant to live.”