In her keynote address at the College of Business Administration and Public Policy commencement ceremony, Janet Murguía, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, underscored the importance of graduates thanking their loved ones for supporting them throughout their education with a personal story of bringing her parents to the Oval Office to meet President Bill Clinton, for whose administration she worked from 1994 to 2000.
“I’ll never forget that moment when I was able to walk them in,” said Murguía. “My mom was crying, and she said, ‘How did we get here?’
“My dad was so proud. He stuck his hand out to President Clinton as I walked him into the Oval Office and he said, ‘Thank you, President Clinton, for giving my daughter this opportunity.’ I’ll never forget what President Clinton said to them. He put his hand on my dad’s shoulder and said, ‘You know what, Mr. Murgia? I hired Janet, she walked you into this office, but you’re the ones who got her here.’”
For several members of the Class of 2011, their loved ones were literally with them every step of the way – because they too were students – and during commencement they were able to share the triumph of achieving a college education together.
Sylvia Gonzalez and her daughter Amanda both earned their bachelor’s degrees in sociology and look forward to entering the Master of Social Work (MSW) program at CSU Dominguez Hills. Libia Fenton and her fiancé Donnell Willcot, Jr. have achieved their undergraduate degrees in psychology; along with their wedding in July, they are looking forward to graduate school at USC in the MSW program. Shirley Robinson (Class of ’07, B.A., studio art) began attending CSU Dominguez Hills after seeing her son Richard Robinson, III (Class of ’91, B.A., public administration) benefit from his education at the university. She graduated last month with her Master of Arts in humanities on the same day that her grandson, Evan Porter, graduated with his bachelor’s degree in accounting. And finally, Shon Williams, Sr. (Class of ’97, B.A., sociology), celebrated his Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree on the same day that his son, Shon Williams, Jr., acquired his bachelor’s degree in psychology. Although personal struggles are a common thread among their stories, so is the spirit of perseverance and mutual support they drew upon to attain their goals.
Sylvia Gonzalez was inspired to begin her study of sociology because of her current career with the Los Angeles Housing Authority.
“I like learning about society and people and how they work,” she said. “I work with low-income families and their needs made my drive more intense to learn more about culture and diversity.”
Another incentive for the mother of three to earn her social work degree was her experience as the parent of an alcoholic son.
“Sometimes I feel like giving up,” said Gonzalez, who wants to earn her MSW so that she can work with parents who share her situation. “But when I see him at his worst, this is when I said, ‘I’ve got to do it.’ And if I couldn’t reach out to him because of what I’m doing wrong, then I want to teach other parents to pay attention to those [behavioral] cues or know the right words to say in order for their children to leave substance abuse behind.”
Gonzalez and her daughter are both the first among their siblings to pursue a college degree. She says the unique situation was “a happy complication” that was beneficial for both of them.
“Being with [Amanda] at a university was never planned,” she said. “But the drive that I had to start school and finish, and then seeing her [at school], there was so much emotional effect to it. We both gave each other a sense of encouragement.”
Gonzalez said that the most memorable part of attending college with Amanda was being able to see her daughter mature into an educated woman.
“I feel at peace that she has gained so much knowledge,” she said. “Not every mother can say that her 20-year-old is receiving a bachelor’s degree at such a young age. I am extremely proud of her accomplishments.”
Gonzalez said that while their professors and classmates were surprised at first to see them attend classes together, amazement turned to admiration.
“We had a professor who got us confused,” she said. “Then there was our statistics professor who would say, “Amanda, here’s your mom,” when I would walk into class. At first I would get redfaced with embarrassement, but I soon got used to it. Then after class, our classmates would say, “Gee, I wish my mom would come with me to school!
“I can understand how young students can get derailed from university life,” Gonzalez said. “We as parents need to respect our children and get involved with their lives; it really helps.”
Fenton and Willcot, who met on myspace.com through a mutual friend, have both had to overcome personal obstacles. Fenton, who was a victim of domestic violence and is estranged from her family, was inspired by her troubled past to study psychology. Willcot, a former Navy Seal and Marine, looks forward to helping veterans like himself become acclimated to civilian life after their military service. They have been accepted into the MSW program at USC and are planning careers as licensed clinical social workers.
On graduation day, Fenton said that becoming college graduates and pursuing advanced degrees symbolize “the best that we can be for ourselves as well as for our children.”
“For everyone else who may not have any hope or think the odds are stacked against [them], we fought against every single one,” she said. “We were determined and being able to graduate with honors, it’s just something. A lot of people have given us a lot of praise; [we see] so much love from his family and friends who have given us a lot of support.”
Willcot said that their commitment to higher education has already begun to influence their young offspring. The couple has five children—he two, she three—from prior relationships.
“They’re excited,” he said. “They’ve been to the USC campus. Our 13-year-old says, ‘I want to go to USC too.’ We’re [grooming] her to get there.”
After retiring from her job as executive assistant to the vice president of special programs at Boeing in 2003, Shirley Robinson decided to go to college to fulfill her dream of becoming a studio artist. She chose CSU Dominguez Hills because of her son Richard’s experience.
“I knew my son had gotten a solid education at CSU Dominguez Hills, and I expected to do the same,” she said. “Dominguez Hills made sense simply because it was affordable, centrally located, and the school of his choice.”
Richard Robinson, III, who now works as chief compliance officer for Nationwide Medical, Inc., said the small size and intimate learning environment at the university “fit my learning style.”
“My education at Dominguez Hills prepared me much more than I had ever planned. Because of the accessibility of the professors and administration, I was able to get that special attention I needed to succeed,” he said.
Her bachelor’s degree in art allowed Shirley Robinson to start a second career – as a working painter who has exhibited and sold her work throughout the South Bay, including the triannual Alumni Show at CSU Dominguez Hills, Gallery Expo in Long Beach, and the Torrance Art Museum. She returned to Dominguez Hills for a master’s degree in humanities so that she could become an art teacher.
Evan Porter, who is Shirley’s grandson from her daughter, is a third-generation CSU Dominguez Hills graduate. He says the influence of a family that values higher education “has been a huge inspiration to my life.”
“My family has been positive role models who lead by example and showed me the way to develop a strong mindset with a foundation built on education,” he said. “They inspire me to be a better man.”
Porter, who worked during college as a behavior therapist for the Exceptional Children’s Foundation, looks forward to earning his advanced degree in marriage and family therapy, possibly at CSU Dominguez Hills, and someday opening his own mental health practice for patients of all ages. He says that he values his degree in business administration as instrumental to his success in whatever he pursues.
“I truly believe education is one of the most important aspects of life,” said Porter, who transferred to CSU Dominguez Hills from West Los Angeles College. “I have learned so many things during my educational journey. I have learned to work well with people, research, make presentations, and develop relationships with business people, and professors. The life experiences I have gained from all the people I have worked with have provided me with endless resources and experiences that will help me develop a strong career.”
While preparing to attend his son’s graduation ceremony, which took place in the morning before his own, Shon Williams, Sr. said that he feels more than thankful for his second college degree.
“I feel like I’ve earned my place in graduating here. I was almost here before and didn’t quite make it,” he said, referring to his first attempt to get a graduate degree. “But I’m really happy that I made it this time.”
Williams began a cycle of alcohol, substance abuse, and crime at age 12 that continued even after he received his bachelor’s degree in 1997. Several personal connections, both familial and professional, influenced his decision to return to college after his last incarceration in 2006.
“I wanted to make my Mom proud and I wanted a way out,” said Williams. “I learned to value academia and work … because Addie Hunt (former day distribution supervisor, Instructional Media Services) taught me how to work. Another reason that I began to value work and school was because I also wanted something different for my sons. They are now all responsible adults who work and attend college.”
Although he was not reaccepted into the MSW program – he had been accepted prior to his last imprisonment – Williams was undeterred. He applied to the M.P.A. program and was accepted. Highlights of his second time in college included studying abroad for nine months at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and being able to apply his classroom training to his work as assistant director of a mental health facility in the Crenshaw District.
“I took a grant writing class with Rhonda Whitfield (lecturer, public administration),” said Williams. “My boss asked me to look at an RFP and to edit it and write a grant. I was able to use what I learned in the classroom on the job. In management, I was able to make sure all the employees are treated equally across the board.”
Williams has been accepted into the Ph.D. program at Argosy University and looks forward to becoming a forensic psychologist in order to help people who struggle with lives of addiction and crime. His other two sons, Andre and Keenan, are both studying sociology at Pierce College. His namesake, Shon Jr., plans to apply to the MSW program at USC program and become either a probation officer or a social work administrator. He said that attending college with his father was “really good.”
“We’ve had our struggles but at the same time, he’s helped me out a lot,” the younger Williams said. “Coming from a minority background and trying to make it, we support each other through everything. When times get hard, we lift each other up and say we’ve got to keep pushing. To other people who are trying to get their [degrees], I tell them never give up and definitely keep inspired.”
The new graduate had a simple message for his father, who would have his degree conferred later that evening in the ceremony for the College of Business Administration and Public Policy.
“Good luck, Dad,” said Shon Williams, Jr. “I love you.”