Single Commencement unifies CSUMB graduates

Commencement 2024

Graduates share their joy in earning their degrees. | Photo by Brent Dundore-Arias

May 18, 2024

By Mark Muckenfuss 

A flurry of hats sailed into the overcast sky above the Salinas Sports Complex’s rodeo arena Saturday, May 18, as Cal State Monterey President Vanya Quiñones announced to about 2,000 students that they were now graduates of the university.

The Commencement marked the first time in nine years that all of CSUMB’s graduates were honored in a single ceremony. Throngs of Otter family members and friends filled the arena stands, emitting a roar of applause as mortarboard tassels were moved from right to left and students suddenly became graduates.

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Two CSUMB Grads smiling while holding diplomas
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Samiya Terry smiling during graduation
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Male CSUMB Students Smiling while doing a thumbs up

“It feels fantastic,” said Ron Pierce, of Oakland, after watching his daughter Kaitlynn receive her bachelor’s degree in social and behavioral science. “It means everything. I’m feeling blessed just that God allowed me to see this day. Right now, I’m overwhelmed.”

Quiñones told the graduates their experience was unique in that many of them had not enjoyed a high school commencement. 

“For those of you who graduated from high school in 2020,” Quiñones said, “you were not able to celebrate together with all your family, supporters and friends. Your accomplishments were overshadowed by a global pandemic and uncertainty … So now we gather together – stronger and full of hope for the future – to celebrate all of you.”

But the COVID-19 pandemic affected more than just high school graduations. For some students, including Kaitlynn Pierce, it disrupted their college careers. She lost two grandparents, an aunt and an uncle during the pandemic, and left school for a year. She completed her studies after the Fall 2023 semester.

“It feels so good,” Pierce said of finally receiving her degree. “It’s the culmination of a lot of work.”

She is currently working at Stanford and plans to go to medical school to become a pediatrician. 

While the day was largely about recognizing the accomplishments of the graduates, it was also a moment to look toward the future. Quiñones told the crowd they were well prepared.

By connecting with lifetime friends and mentors at CSUMB, she said, “You have found a path to the future. Even though you are graduating from Cal State Monterey Bay, you are an Otter for life. This is our Otter Raft and we grow stronger with every graduate.” 

She acknowledged the family and friends in attendance and their contributions to the success of the graduates. She then went on to recognize various groups of students, beginning with veterans and moving on to affinity groups, academic achievers and participants in various programs and student organizations, eventually bringing everyone to their feet. 

Following brief speeches by graduating students Katie Scariot (psychology) and Ana Muñoz (collaborative health and human services), both of whom served as president of the Associate Students during the 2023-24 academic year, Quiñones introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Steven Packer, CEO of Montage Health, and presented him with an honorary Doctor of Science degree.

QuiƱones presenting Dr. Steven Packer with an honorary Doctor of Science degree

QuiƱones presenting Dr. Steven Packer with an honorary Doctor of Science degree

In his address, Packer spoke about the sometimes winding path of his career from physician to hospital administrator. 

“My own personal journey has taught me that the road to a fulfilling career, and indeed, a fulfilling life, is rarely straightforward,” he said. “So, while many of you may already have a life/career plan, I encourage you to embrace the unexpected; it will stretch your comfort zone and allow for amazing growth.”

He encouraged the graduates to make a difference in the world.

“You have the opportunity to shape not just your own careers, but also the communities you serve,” he said. “My hope is that you will use your talents to uplift those around you and help address disparities – whether in healthcare or other disciplines. 

“The true measure of your success,” he added, “will not come in the form of accolades or income, but in the impact you make on the lives of others.”

A somber moment followed Packer’s speech as interim deans Vanessa Lopez-Littleton and James Hussar presented posthumous degrees to two students who died during the past year, 

Maria Viurquez-Benavidez, who was majoring in collaborative health and human services, and Milo Ramos, a psychology major. 

“Our thoughts are with the families and friends of these two Otter students whose lives ended too soon,” Hussar said, “and we are privileged to recognize their contributions to our Raft while they were with us.”

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Andrew Lawson asked the crowd to “take one more moment to honor these two students who embodied our Otter spirit.” He then turned to President Quiñones and presented the 28th graduating class of CSUMB.

In the following hour, families cheered their students, students cheered fellow students and many cheered themselves as their names were announced and they crossed the stage and accepted their diplomas.

For Coral Evans, a kinesiology major from Tracy, the day brought a mixture of emotions. 

“It was scary this morning and kind of unreal,” said Evans, who will start a doctoral program this fall at the University of the Pacific. 

While excited to be finished with her degree, she said it would be hard to leave CSUMB. 

“What about all the friends I’ve made here?” she said. “That’s kind of sad, but it’s fun to celebrate with my friends what we all accomplished.”

Sophia Reygoza, a liberal studies major from Salinas, said her graduation was the culmination of a journey that began 10 years ago and was interrupted by the births of her three children. She worked as a teachers’ aid in the Salinas schools but dreamed of more. 

“I thought, ‘I have to go back to school,’” she said. “I just drove here every day, Monday through Friday, and I got it done. It’s like unreal almost.”

She plans to pursue her teaching credential at CSUMB while working as a substitute teacher. 

Some graduates of the credential program already have jobs lined up for the fall. Kelsey Clark said she will be teaching fourth grade in the same Boulder Creek school she attended as a kid. She said she found a home when she transferred to CSUMB from Cabrillo College.

“I always felt out of place at Cabrillo,” she said. “But at CSUMB, everyone was so welcoming. They were so kind. I feel reallly blessed to have met all these great people.”

Audrey Jones said she too met great people. She had to spend time at a prep table in the morning, pinning at least seven stoles to her robe, including ones for research, academic honors, disability, Tai Sigma and Collaborative Health and Human Services, the degree she was receiving. Jones, 62, was with two other non-traditional students, Loyce Bryant, 52, and Cynthia Matory, 64. All are from Seaside and they forged a cohesive bond as students. They plan to launch a non-profit organization in Seaside in the coming months to help at-risk students.

After spending a career in human resources with the California Department of Corrections, Jones said her CSUMB experience changed her life.

“It was transformative,” she said. But it was also necessary for her.

“I went back to give back,” Jones said of her return to school after a career. “I also want to be an example for my grandchildren who are in their first years of college. I needed to walk the talk. This is like the icing on the cake for me.”

Cake was not available, but other food was being served at the Commencement Festival, which lined the front entrance to the arena. Concession booths offered flowers and CSUMB memorabilia, and various service agencies tabled at the event. After the ceremony, a DJ broke out party music at an outdoor dining area. 

Sales were good for most concessionaires. Some said the traffic was better than the previous year. 

Quiñones said she was pleased with the result. 

“It was the first time we used this format and I think it was a success,” she said. “It was amazing.”