Friday’s commencement ceremony at Columbia College was a moment of triumph for all graduates, but it was a special victory for students who never thought they would earn a degree.
Amy Alonzo Rozak / Union Democrat Brothers Travis (left) and Kenny Giannini graduated together Friday night. Amy Alonzo Rozak/Union Democrat
Columbia College’s Class of 2012 included more than 200 students who earned associate degrees in arts, science and occupational education.
Sixteen students got multiple degrees, and 85 earned Certificates of Achievement.
Many new graduates, including Kenny Giannini, 29, are transferring to universities next year.
Giannini just earned his associate’s degree in watershed management and will work toward his bachelor’s degree in environmental management and protection at Humboldt State University.
From there, he’s thinking about going on to get a doctorate in environmental science.
It’s a far cry from his start at Columbia College in 2001, when school didn’t feel like the place for him.
“I was right out of high school, I was 18, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Giannini said.
Giannini spent the next several years working at the Sierra Pacific Industries mill in Keystone. He was laid off when the mill closed in 2009, and that led him to become a full-time student again. Watershed management appealed to him because he loves the outdoors.
“After working in the mill, I wanted to get involved in something that was important to the economy and the world itself,” Giannini said.
Giannini said commencement was even better for him because his 31-year-old brother Travis graduated with him. Travis earned his associate’s degree in child development and wants to help children who have social problems.
“I took one course in child development, and it was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Travis said. “It was a lot of fun, working around children. They bring such life to you with the simple things they get excited about.”
Kenny Giannini tutored his older brother in algebra, and they often ran into each other on campus.
“I’d come out of math class, and child development was right there,” Giannini said. “(Travis) would always have a bunch of kids jumping on him.”
Both brothers, who attended Soulsbyville Elementary School and Summerville High School, said the experience of graduating with one another was “surreal.”
Like Giannini, 28-year-old Virginia Bailey first started at Columbia College in 2001. She initially pursued a career in forestry, inspired by her time volunteering at a park in Hawaii.
“I had just gotten my GED in Hawaii,” Bailey said. “I was working a job and going to school, and then I started working another job. It was just too much ... so I took a 10-year gap.”
Bailey, single mother to three-year-old Ebony, went back to Columbia in 2008 as a result of financial pressure and her desire for a better life.
She graduated with a degree in medical office management, but she’s not stopping there.
She’ll take organic chemistry and other prerequisite classes this summer, then apply to a nursing program next year.
Bailey credited campus resources at Columbia with helping her through tough times.
“I love Columbia College,” Bailey said. “The faculty and staff, they’re just awesome people. They really try to help you out. There’s always somebody to talk to, whether it be a financial situation or whatever else.”
Tracy Newsom, 50, a mother of five, also thanked Columbia College faculty for helping her attain her goal of a forestry degree this year.
“They want to see you learn,” Newsom said. “They literally take you by the hand and say, ‘What can I do to help you understand this?’ Because it’s a small school, it’s a personal learning experience.”
Newsom, who described herself as “always totally interested in trees,” was hired last month as a utility forester with a PG&E contractor.
“My daughter told me, ‘The tree lady got a career working with trees!’ ” Newsom said.
Columbia College’s 43rd commencement ceremony took place Friday night in the school’s Oak Pavilion. The Columbia College Big Band played as the graduates entered and exited.
The night’s speakers included college President Dennis Gervin, Vice President of Student Learning Leslie Buckalew, and students Stephanie Romero and Ryan Hodge.
In the student graduation address, Gina Davenport, 54, who earned her associate’s degree in business administration, spoke about the challenges that can keep students from finishing an education.
Davenport dropped out of high school in 1974 but promised her mom that she’d finish someday.
“This college degree is that promise plus interest,” Davenport said.