By Khalida Sarwari
There were a few firsts at San Jose State’s commencement ceremony for the social science students Thursday. It was the first time in 70 years that the school held its graduation off campus and the first time that each of the thousand-plus graduates had their name called. For 23-year-old Ruben Hughes, it was one of the most thrilling parts of the show.
“I’m super excited to hear my name called,” said Hughes, a psychology student from Fairfield, as he waited to line up and accept his diploma. The achievement, he said, places him one step closer to his dream of becoming a school psychologist. “It just feels very surreal to not have class anymore,” he said. “I feel like an actual adult.”
Hughes plans to spend his summer working and saving so that he can return to San Jose State in the fall to pursue his master’s degree. But Thursday was a day of celebration and he had only one thing on his mind: “Drinks with friends” after the program.
Avaya Stadium, home of the San Jose Earthquakes, served as a unique venue for the school’s second of seven graduation ceremonies this week. The stadium’s proximity to the San Jose International Airport made low-flying planes amid the Valley’s rolling hills an interesting backdrop for a ceremony that saw roughly 1,400 Spartans officially entering “the world of ‘I did it,’” as coined by SJSU’s president Mary Papazian.
“A San Jose State degree will do many things for you,” Papazian told her graduates, who despite sitting underneath overcast skies in their black graduation gowns and caps cheerfully waved to their loved ones sitting in the bleachers. “But, going forward it will be on you to maintain the energy you see here today, to stay active in your communities, to engage as citizens, to speak truth to power, to shine a light in the darkness and to be lifelong learners.”
Sociology student Maria Valdez, 23, of Chowchilla, is one of the many statistics Papazian referenced in her speech. She is one out of four San Jose State students who was the first in her family to graduate from college. Thursday, she received her bachelor’s in sociology, but someday she’d like to obtain an advanced degree to eventually work in human resources.
“I’m hoping my brother follows in my footsteps,” she said, clutching her beflowered cap in between her hands. “I’m hoping I can be an example to my younger cousins.”
Les Francis, a San Jose State alum who served as deputy White House chief of staff under President Jimmy Carter, gave the commencement address. Francis congratulated the A and B students, but had a special message for “the C students and those who skated by in the 2.0s,” adding that he was among the latter group.
“Trump is living proof that anybody in America can become president and I’m living proof that anybody can be a commencement speaker,” he joked, prompting someone to yell out “leave politics out of it” from the stands.
Francis left the graduates with a lesson on courage, a characteristic that shouldn’t be limited to just first responders and soldiers, he said.
“Keep in mind it also takes courage to enter into a marriage, to raise a child, to change jobs,” he said. “Sometimes it just takes courage to be yourself.”
For Carlo Sarmiento, 22, of Castro Valley, who received his social science teacher prep degree, Thursday was a day of both anxiety and excitement — especially over what’s to come: getting his teaching credential in the fall which would enable him to teach high school social science in the not too distant future.
“I love working with the next generation, getting them ready for their future,” he said.
But as the clock marched closer to the noon hour, Sarmiento had something altogether different on his mind.
“Get some Korean barbecue and have some sake bombs,” he exclaimed.
Sarmiento’s schoolmate, Jordan Williams, a 26-year-old graphic design student from Richmond, felt a sense of restlessness and anxiety as he waited his turn to walk across the stage.
“It’s like an ending,” he said. “It’s the culmination of all your hard work and sacrifices and everything.”
Turlock resident Jessica Starks, 41, beamed after receiving her double master’s in sociology and Mexican-American studies. She knew her parents, two kids and fiance sitting in the bleachers above were proud of her. The family had plans to celebrate in Santa Cruz over the next few days.
“I think I felt a little stressed out,” she said with a nervous laugh about the morning’s festivities. “But now I feel better.”
Meanwhile the smell of coffee wafted in the bleachers, where families and friends adorned in their Sunday best sat clutching leis and flowers as they impatiently waited to greet their graduates.
Sharra Brook, a native of San Jose who now lives in Eastvale, drove up to see her 23-year-old daughter, Savae Harper, receive her master’s in sociology.
“She makes me proud every day,” said Brook. “I can’t wait to see what the next stage of her life — what her journey is going to be.”
While the next chapter of Harper and her fellow Spartans’ lives are yet to be written, Brook already had a not-so-distant place in mind to take her daughter to celebrate.
“Probably McCormick’s,” she said with a laugh.
Odds are many local restaurants in the area will be full of newly minted San Jose State graduates and their families celebrating a worthwhile life achievement this week. Another two graduation ceremonies were scheduled for later Thursday and three more on Friday.