Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Columbia's 44th Commencement will begin at 6:30 p.m. tonight in the Oak Pavilion on campus, with a reception to follow in the adjacent Carkeet Park.

Columbia College is sending new graduates into the world this spring, many of whom have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

The college will award degrees to more than 200 students at its commencement ceremony tonight. Twenty-seven are graduating with honors, and 19 will leave with distinction - meaning their grades were mostly A's.

Among those graduating with distinction is 23-year-old Taylor Skokan, who started at Columbia with "no intentions whatsoever" of earning a degree but is leaving with three. He's also worked as tutor and instructor in the college's Academic Achievement Center.

"I have a lot of trouble finding a subject that I'm not interested in," Skokan admitted.

He graduated from Sonora's Ted Bird High School, an independent study program, and spent three years in various local jobs.

After starting work at a fitness center, he found himself wanting to know more about the human body and enrolled at Columbia in 2009. He didn't anticipate staying for long.

But he credits his teachers, particularly English professor Jim Toner and biology professor Micha Miller, for igniting his love of learning.

"I was done for," Skokan said. "They made a permanent student out of me. My science classes just fed me more and more."

The slope ended with associate degrees in biological sciences, language arts and liberal studies.

Skokan plans to earn a bachelor's degree in cellular biology and is deciding between several universities. The University of California, Merced, and UC Davis have awarded him the Regents Scholarship, one of their highest honors.

Julie Peavey, 36, is another graduating student whose first semester was a life-changing one. She arrived feeling doubtful of her academic abilities.

She grew up in San Diego and had a baby before she could graduate from high school, eventually earning a General Educational Development certificate.

She had been out of school for about 20 years before she and her friend Shanna Beach, 23, enrolled at Columbia together. Peavey was working at Diestel Family Turkey Ranch. Beach, a Summerville High School graduate, was tired of sales jobs.

The two started in the First Semester Experience program, which prepares students for college-level work by teaching them study skills and learning strategies.

"We obviously must have learned something, because eventually they had us (lead) the student workshop on organization and time management," Beach said.

Peavey and Beach were mentors in the First Semester Experience program and immersed themselves in campus life. The dynamic duo has taken almost every class together.

"We have definitely used the buddy system to make it through," Peavey said. "She's been my rock, and I hope I've been there for her too."

Both women have earned associate degrees in liberal arts, with emphasis on science. They're enrolling together at UC Merced, where they will study psychology.

"Just the thought of having to write a research paper or anything completely freaked me out," Peavey said. "Now I can write any paper that they throw at me."

Jalin Cassidy, 23, is yet another Columbia College success story.

His dyslexia and attention deficit disorder went undiagnosed when he was an elementary schooler in Farmington. He graduated from a continuation school and enrolled at Columbia to learn job skills for construction, never expecting to earn a degree.

But there, counselors helped him address his dyslexia and he excelled in his natural resources classes.

Next fall he'll attend the University of Idaho for a degree in rangeland ecology. He recently landed a job as a hydrologic technician in Idaho's Clearwater National Forest.

"It's just been a wonderful experience," he said of his time at Columbia. "As much as I love it here, I'm happy to leave. I'm ready to start my new life in Idaho.

"I've got my ducks in a row," Cassidy said.

Skokan, Peavey, Beach and Cassidy are all leaving a legacy. Cassidy worked at the Columbia counseling center and as a mentor for student support services. Skokan enjoyed tutoring and teaching so much that he wants to make it his career.

Peavey's goal is to work as a psychologist at the Sonora-based Center for a Non-Violent Community, while Beach wants to teach at Columbia.

"The support system that we gained there is irreplaceable, and I want to be able to pass that on to future students," Beach said. "It's crucial to feel like there's people around who care about your life and where you're going."