By Dr. Francisco C. Rodriguez
Few events are as moving for me as graduation. Commencement is a time when our passion to help others and commitment to a strong and supportive community college system reach fruition.
Last week's graduating class was the largest in MiraCosta College history. We awarded more than 1,400 associate degrees and 1,100 certificates. Never before had I seen our campus as vibrant and alive as when nearly 500 of our graduates marched down our long faculty recessional line, diplomas and certificates in their hands, smiles on their faces, and pride and promise in their eyes. Each of these students came to MiraCosta College with a different goal and purpose, and each is leaving with the skills and knowledge that will serve them well throughout the rest of their lives. These students are now off to public and private colleges and universities throughout the state and nation, or off to start new careers in the fields of their choice.
Each year, I share the profiles of a few of the students who just earned their degree or certificate from MiraCosta College. Each of these stories is unique, but each also shares a common thread: these alumni remained vigilant in their commitment to receiving a high quality education, and each was guided by the expert and caring faculty and staff at MiraCosta College.
Alina O’Tool: Talk about an odyssey. Born under communist rule in Poland, Alina O’Tool witnessed the rise of the Solidarity movement, the country’s first free elections and its transition to democracy. She moved to Germany and married an American, and she and her husband spent stints in Switzerland, India and England before settling in North County.
Her life really changed when the 40-year-old mother of two enrolled at MiraCosta College two years ago. “When I went to my first class, I was so scared. I said to myself, `I want to go back home.’ But the professors helped me so much, the people were so supportive. They gave me confidence. I learned that if you do the work, they will not let you fail.”
O’Tool will transfer to a University of California campus in the fall with a 4.0 grade point average. Her plans include studying human development and earning a Ph.D.
She says she turned to MiraCosta College with one goal in mind: improve her English. “The only English I knew was from talking to my husband,” O’Tool said. “I couldn’t help my children with their homework. I was working at a Target, and I said this was not what I wanted to do with my life.”
She soon opted to seek an associate in arts degree.
“If you work hard and you believe in yourself, and if you have people around you who are supporting you and believe in you, you can do anything,” O’Tool said.
Richard Huizar: After concluding that he couldn’t afford to attend San Diego State University, Richard Huizar turned to MiraCosta College.
It’s one of the best moves he has made in his young life. The 19-year-old graduated last week with an associate degree in applied mathematics as an Honors Scholar with a 3.9 GPA. He is also a Medal of Honor recipient, on the President’s List, scored a perfect 800 on the SAT subject tests in math and physics, and plans to earn a Ph.D.
“MiraCosta College was my educational destiny,” Huizar said. “It is an amazing place with a positive environment and excellent faculty and staff. It gave me an opportunity to transfer to a great four-year program and showed that I can do anything I wanted.”
Huizar has financed much of his education by working three jobs. One is tutoring in the EOPS/CalWORKs Program helping underprivileged and underrepresented students in lower-level mathematics courses.
“Some of these people have failed these classes before and are about to give up, so it’s great to see them succeed,” Huizar said.
Huizar is the first in his family to graduate from college. “I want to show my younger family that higher education and their dreams are possible--a matter of course, not something out of reach for us.”
Huizar is eyeing a career in engineering, but says he hasn’t focused on a particular area yet. “I’m going to miss MiraCosta,” Huizar said. “It’s my home away from home. I’m there all the time.”
Huizar just learned he was accepted to attend one of the most prestigious universities in the country, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to study applied mathematics this fall.
Alex Klimek: Marine Corps veteran Alex Klimek, who grew up in Champaign, Illinois, first came to Oceanside in 2001 when he enlisted in the service and was stationed at Camp Pendleton. When he left the Marines a few years later, Klimek held a series of jobs that ranged from customer service representative at a Carlsbad auto dealership to auditor at two North County hotels.
A few years ago, Klimek decided to give MiraCosta College a try. “I didn’t really have any direction in my career and I really couldn’t stay in just one industry.” It was while he was at MiraCosta College that Klimek learned of an opening at Genentech, which manufactures medicines to treat a variety of illnesses. Klimek soon secured a job supporting quality control analysts by preparing glassware and equipment for testing. Eager to learn more about the industry, Klimek’s focus at MiraCosta quickly turned to biotech.
“It was a whole new industry for me,” Klimek said. “I wanted to learn everything I could.”
Although Klimek has earned his degree, he plans to remain at MiraCosta College for additional courses before transferring to UC San Diego.
“MiraCosta is a great school,” he said. “It has invaluable resources. The admissions office is very helpful, the book loan program has been great and they have an excellent tutoring program both in person and online.”
Ariella Sosis: Her resume says it all: CEO for a nonprofit she founded; sales and marketing professional for the Italian fashion company Versace, and social media coordinator for a San Diego piano studio. She speaks fluent Russian, is a skilled musician, and engages in extensive volunteer work.
Oh, and Ariella Sosis is just 19 years old. The Honors Scholar graduated this spring with a 4.0 GPA, is a Medal of Honor recipient, and will attend the extremely competitive Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley this fall.
She hopes one day to run an international nonprofit.
One of Sosis’ first projects at MiraCosta College was launching a Hillel chapter for Jewish students. “It was kind of lonely for me Jewish-wise,” Sosis said. “There were no Shabbat services, no Purimspiels (a comic dramatization retelling the story of Purim) or anything like that.” Three years later, Hillel of MiraCosta College has more than 100 members.
Sosis came to MiraCosta College upon graduating from Del Norte High School in San Diego when she was 16.
“MiraCosta has some of the best faculty members anywhere, faculty members who support you no matter what you do,” Sosis said. “It has a dedicated staff that cares about the school and believes in it.”
Philosophy professor and longtime family friend Isabel Luengo is one of Sosis’ biggest boosters.
“Ariella is a girl who has always had a lot of initiative,” Luengo said. “Even when she was in middle school and high school, she took charge, worked well with others and had set very clear goals while finding a way to accomplish them.”
These are just a handful of the many wonderful students who participated in commencement last week. If you'd like to read more student stories, please visit our website. And, take a look at some of the wonderful photos from our ceremony, posted on our Flickr and Facebook pages.
Participating in commencement is always the most rewarding part of my job. Last Tuesday's ceremony was the last MiraCosta College commencement for me, as I will embark next week on a new venture as chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District. Although my departure made this year's ceremony bittersweet, I am so very happy for all of our graduates; proud of all our hardworking students; and grateful to our college faculty, staff and administration whose dedication to student success help make it all happen. Thank you for five memorable and joyous years.
Francisco C. Rodriguez, Ph.D.
Interested in learning more about MiraCosta College history? Check out our 80th anniversary video, request a magazine be mailed to your home, or read the full college history online.