Fresno State graduation filled with stories of overcoming the odds

Joseph Castro presides over his first commencement

The Fresno BeeMay 17, 2014 

It's a rite of passage that's continued for 103 years at Fresno State.

The bright-eyed, cap and gowned-graduates, surrounded by people who love them waving, cheering, clapping as that announcement is made: the diploma is yours.

On Saturday, the tradition continued in a packed Save Mart Center, where a portion of 5,600 students graduating this year attended the university-wide morning commencement.

Update: On Sunday, Fresno State announced that attendance Saturday was 10,235 and 1,323 graduates walked.

Proud mother Nancy Medina of Easton was among the thousands waving from the bleachers at the sea of grads on the arena floor. She brought a big red sign with the words "You did it!" which she enthusiastically waved as her daughter's class of 2014 was told to take a stand.

"I love you Marlina!" she called out above the roar.

"I was overwhelmed with emotion," Nancy Medina said of that moment. "Just hearing the music, seeing her come out, and oh, my God, I can't even explain the joy. ... It's amazing. I am on Cloud 9 right now."

Nancy Medina gave birth to her daughter when she was just 15. And "against all odds," Marlina Medina has become the first in the family to go to college, her mother said.

Her 23-year-old daughter's next step is entering a master's program to further her dream of becoming a social worker.

Castro awards his first President's Medal

It was a first for Joseph Castro, too -- his first commencement as university president. He presented his first President's Medal to undergraduate German Marquez Alcala, who was honored for his research in both agricultural business and philosophy and for hundreds of hours of community service.

Alcala first came to the United States from Mexico as an undocumented immigrant, said Castro, who applauded him for overcoming huge language and economic barriers in his quest for higher education.

"He exemplifies all that is most noble and inspiring about a Fresno State education," Castro said. "He proves yet again how transformative this university can be in the lives of young adults seeking the opportunity to be all they aspire to be.

"I was deeply touched by reading German's personal narrative, in which he states, 'The excitement I feel for my future academic journey is only amplified when I remember the sacrifices my parents endured so I could have access to opportunities denied to them. They taught me that the intrinsic value of a human being is not determined by his or her financial worth, but rather by the level of dedication, work ethic and gratitude a person possesses. I will never forget my immigrant roots. In fact I am grateful for the difficulties I faced. Those experiences led me to maturity and gave me a refuge and hope in a future made better from education.' "

Castro told Alcala his words resonated deeply with him "because I traveled a similar path to higher education."

Clovis woman wins Graduate Medal

This year's recipient of the University Graduate Medal is Dalia Haitayan of the College of Social Sciences. Haitayan of Clovis was applauded for her pioneering thesis research, exploring the rise of evangelical conservatism in Fresno, and how Protestant churches reevaluated their role in the midst of 1960s and '70s urbanization.

While only those students graduating with special honors or a doctorate degree took stage, the majority seated on the Save Mart Center floor had their own kind of self-created spotlight for family who searched for them through the sea of black gowns: The decorated graduation cap. They ranged from glittery squares and messages of inspiration to zombie-inspired art and mini red plastic cups arranged for a game of beer pong -- a shout-out to one man's party days.

Amidst cheers from loved ones, Castro encouraged the grads to live responsibly, maintain high ethical standards and make sure to "give back a measure of good to your community" throughout their lives.

From babies to parents, everyone's beaming

After the ceremony, outside the Save Mart Center, doctorate graduate Timothy Allison, 33, of Fresno cradled his 2-month-old daughter, Brooklyn, in his arms. The final stretch of his education became a "juggling act" between writing papers, burping the baby and changing diapers, but it was all worth it.

As he looked into Brooklyn's eyes, he said he hoped one day she'd take this message away, hearing about her dad's degree: You can do anything you believe you can do.

What does Timothy Allison hope to do with his education? "Make a difference."

The teacher with Fresno Unified School District wants to further his work in special education. His loved ones are proud of him, jokingly adding he's the first in the family to earn a PhD since "medieval times."

Nearby, the Southern California family of undergraduate Hannah Lipman cooed over their 23-year-old, who hopes to become a preschool teacher or therapist.

Her beaming mother watched as her daughter and a friend posed for a photo and said, "They're so beautiful." Hannah's smiling dad stood nearby wearing a T-shirt specially printed for the occasion: The image of his daughter's face, big-grinned at age 6, her blonde locks pulled back in a red bow sitting atop her head.

"It's just amazing," mother Jennifer Lipman said of watching their daughter graduate. "We've been schooling them for years -- I can't believe it's over and that it's the next step, which is up to her."

Deans' Undergraduate and Graduate Medalists

• Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology: German Marquez Alcala (undergraduate) and Minh "James" Nguyen Le (graduate)

• College of Arts and Humanities: Kevin Piercy (undergraduate) and Bradley A. Rutledge (graduate)

• Craig School of Business: Brenda Garcia Lemus (undergraduate) and Kurtis Willey (graduate)

• Kremen School of Education and Human Development: Nereyda Dominguez (undergraduate) and Clifford Frazier III (graduate)

• Lyles College of Engineering: Kathryn Updyke (undergraduate) and Anthony Cemo (graduate)

• College of Health and Human Services: Emily Bosh (undergraduate) and Karina Harris (graduate)

• College of Science and Mathematics: Aroob Abdelhamid (undergraduate) and Nicole Jones (graduate)

• College of Social Sciences: Maria Ortega (undergraduate) and Dalia Haitayan (graduate)

• Division of Student Affairs: Sean Kiernan (undergraduate) and Jose Arrezola (graduate)

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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