2017 Commencements

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Stories of Determination Dominate 2017 Community College Graduations (click for student photos)

One was without a home and without a job but would become one of the top community college students in the country. Another is a former high school dropout. A third is a former foster child who served six years with the National Guard. All three are among the thousands of students graduating this spring from community colleges in San Diego and Imperial counties.

Graduations in the two-county region begin May 19, when San Diego Miramar College holds its commencement at the Hourglass Fieldhouse on campus.

“Commencements remind us what our community colleges are all about,” said Sunita “Sunny” Cooke, superintendent/president of MiraCosta College who serves as president of the San Diego & Imperial Counties Community Colleges Association (SDICCCA). “So many of our students have overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges and are now transferring to some of the finest universities in the world or going out into the workforce as invaluable, contributing members of our society. Their stories are an inspiration to us all.”

Following are details of each graduation, along with a brief biography of a graduate from each campus.

San Diego Miramar College. Friday, May 19, 1 p.m., Hourglass Fieldhouse, Miramar College, 10440 Black Mountain Road, San Diego.

Ishak Mahamoud

Mahamoud is one of six children born to parents who emigrated from Somalia. Mahamoud, who participated in a NASA-funded mentorship program in which he helped build smaller scaled versions of the Mars rover for student competitions, is graduating with an associate degree in physics. He has been active in the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, and he secured a 2017 Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship that will cover up to $40,000 in tuition, books, and living expenses for the next two or three years while pursuing his bachelor’s degree. He plans to study electrical engineering next fall at either UC Berkeley or UCLA. “This is the kind of student who sat in the front row of my class and had a thirst for critical thinking and knowledge,” said Dr. Carmen Jay, director of the San Diego Miramar College Honors Program.


San Diego Mesa College. Saturday, May 20, 3 p.m., University of San Diego’s Jenny Craig Pavilion, University of San Diego, 5998 Alcala Park, San Diego.

Fabiola Beas

Fabiola Beas is the recipient of the San Diego Mesa College President’s Award for Academic Excellence and Service. And for good reason. Besides being an academic standout (she has twice been on the Dean’s Honor List), the psychology major is a Lead Peer Navigator, is active in the Puente program, and is involved with helping recent high school graduates transition seamlessly to Mesa College through monthly contacts. “I am a proud contributing member to the campus culture at San Diego Mesa College by being an active participant in the educational equity efforts of the school as well as my own personal goal to serve others through my work,” said the aspiring educator who will be transferring this fall to San Diego State University.


MiraCosta College. Friday, May 26, 5 p.m., in front of the Administration Building, MiraCosta College, 1 Barnard Drive, Oceanside.

Vanessa Reynolds

Without a job and living in a dilapidated motorhome, Vanessa “Van” Reynolds was at wit’s end. “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Reynolds said. “I needed desperately to change my life.” Reynolds’s life changed after finding MiraCosta College. Reynolds has been active on campus, became President of the Gender Sexuality Alliance, and volunteered selflessly in the larger community, all while maintaining a 4.0 grade point average en route to an associate degree in social and behavioral science. Academic excellence landed Reynolds the prestigious Jack Kent Cooke Undergraduate Transfer Scholarship awarded to the top community college students in the country. Reynolds plans to earn a dual MBA/Juris Doctor at Stanford University before embarking on a career focusing on international mergers and acquisitions.


Palomar College. Friday, May 26, 5 p.m., on the football practice field, 1140 W. Mission Road, San Marcos.

Juan Flores

Juan Flores, 29, embodies the mission of California Community Colleges. Flores, who is graduating from Palomar College with transfer degrees in psychology and sociology and a 3.7 GPA, grew up in a rough neighborhood of San Diego, overcoming immense personal challenges before arriving at Palomar in 2014. Earlier this year, he was one of just 20 students from around the country chosen for the Phi Theta Kappa All-USA Community College Academic Team. Out of more than 1,800 applicants, Flores was one of only two California students to make the team, earning a $5,000 scholarship and a trip to New Orleans.​


San Diego City College. Friday, May 26, 5 p.m., Spreckels Organ Pavilion, Balboa Park, San Diego

Abdisalan Bulhan 

Abdisalan Bulhan is making the grade. The Kenyan immigrant, who moved to the U.S. when he was 12, is a peer mentor at San Diego City College and has been named to the Phi Theta Kappa All-California Academic Team based on his grades, intellectual excellence, leadership, and service to community. He is set to transfer to San Diego State University in the fall, where he is aiming to focus his studies on business and social work. His goal: to launch an organization providing resources to immigrants. “As an immigrant, I understand the importance of being knowledgeable about programs that can help immigrants. With a strong sense of humility, I am ready to serve as a leader for individuals in my community and beyond.


Southwestern College. Friday, May 26, 4 p.m. at Southwestern College’s Devore Stadium, 900 Otay Lakes Road, Chula Vista.

Christina and Natalee Nordfelt

Mother and daughter duo Christina and Natalee Nordfelt will soon walk across the stage together at Southwestern College’s commencement ceremony. It’s the inevitable end to their journey that began years before with them taking their first college class together. A difficult five-unit Italian 120 course was daughter Natalee’s first dive into higher education. Her mother Christina, who already had some courses under her belt, told Natalee that the class would be tough. They passed with flying colors. Fast forward a few years and the two are now graduating together with Christina receiving her degree in landscape and nursery technology and Natalee receiving a theatre Aarts degree. Christina is going to pursue her goal of owning a flower shop and Natalee is off to the Theatre Program at San Diego State University in the fall.


San Diego Continuing Education. Friday, June 2, Organ Pavilion, Balboa Park, San Diego

William Sanchez

“If you have the merit and determination, anything is possible.” So says William Sanchez, and he should know. Sanchez dropped out of school a few years ago to find a job to help his financially struggling family. Now 20, he completed the accelerated high school program, maintained a 4.0 GPA, and is now set to enroll at San Diego Mesa College as a San Diego Promise student in the fall, en route to reaching his dream of becoming a doctor. “To become a doctor, I know I have to be an outstanding candidate,” Sanchez said. “I look forward to being an honors student and joining the extracurricular activities and clubs at Mesa.”


Grossmont College. Wednesday, June 7, 5:30 p.m., Main Quad, Grossmont College, 8800 Grossmont College Drive, El Cajon

Meron Cholagh

To call Meron Cholagh ambitious is a bit of an understatement. Fluent in four languages, the Iraqi immigrant, honors student and financial aid ambassador at Grossmont College is set to graduate with three associate degrees and two certificates before transferring to San Diego State University in the fall as he pursues a career in international business. He has earned a Community Service Award from state Sen. Joel Anderson. He volunteers regularly at his church. He is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society at Grossmont College. And he does not believe in barriers, as evidenced by his participation with the Grossmont College chapter of the Hispanic Organization for Latino Awareness (HOLA) Club, which promotes educational and cultural awareness of the invaluable contribution that Latino cultures have provided.


Cuyamaca College. Thursday, June 8, 5:30 p.m., Cuyamaca College (on the lawn in front of the Communications Arts Building), 900 Rancho San Diego Parkway, Rancho San Diego.

Jovonda Reina

A former foster child who was shuffled around so often that she attended three different elementary schools in the second grade alone, Jovonda Reina is the epitome of perseverance. After serving for six years in the Army National Guard in Virginia and Texas, Reina enrolled at Cuyamaca College after she and her husband moved to San Diego’s East County. Now she’s taking her associate of arts degree and the lessons learned at Cuyamaca College to San Diego State University, where Reina is aiming to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in counseling. Reina’s professionalism and achievements in the face of adversity landed her the honor of being student speaker for this year’s Cuyamaca College commencement.


Imperial Valley College. Saturday, June 10, 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., DePaoli Sports Complex, Imperial Valley College, 380 E. Aten Road, Imperial.

Christine Bermudez

Christine Bermudez wants to make a difference in people’s lives. That’s why she has resolved to become a nurse, why she volunteers at a Brawley hospital emergency room, why she took part in a three-week Study Abroad Health Sciences Educational Experience at Universidad de Iberoamerica in San Jose, Costa Rica. Bermudez, president of the Associated Students, graduates with an associate degree in general science and plans to apply to the Imperial Valley College nursing program before pursuing a bachelor’s degree in nursing from San Diego State University.

The San Diego and Imperial Counties Community College Association is a collaboration between the six community college districts in the two-county area. SDICCCA comprises the community colleges in the two-county region that together serve more than 200,000 students. SDICCCA collaborates closely with San Diego State University, UC San Diego, Cal State San Marcos, and the San Diego Workforce Partnership in developing and maintaining effective programs that ensure student success, serve the community, and train workers with up-to-date job skills.

For more information, contact Kristen Huyck at MiraCosta College, 760.795.6612.


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