The meaning of it all was just beginning to dawn on Martin Jimenez Gonzalez as he stood in the line of graduates during the cool morning of June 19, 2022, in Riverside, California, United States. The moment was getting real.
At 8:00 a.m., he and several hundred other La Sierra University graduates, clothed in their billowing dark-blue gowns and with their tasseled and at times elaborately decorated caps would soon be walking down the hill to their seating area under a white canopy on Founders’ Green. From there he would eventually walk on stage to receive his Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice. It would be an emotional moment filled with appreciation.
“I'm just really grateful to be here,” Jimenez Gonzalez said before the graduates began moving down to the commencement area. “I’m really grateful to be able to dedicate this achievement to my dad. He passed away, unfortunately. So I’m grateful to give him that, and I'm grateful to be here with my family and just spend this day with them.”
Jimenez Gonzalez was among 449 members of La Sierra University’s Class of 2022, which graduated on a day that also celebrated Father’s Day and Juneteenth. It was a return to the university’s long-standing outdoor commencement on Founders’ Green that capped two days of graduation events. Graduations in 2020 and 2021 consisted of single drive-through events in which graduates decorated their cars and drove through campus, receiving gifts and cheered on by faculty and staff who lined the route. After completing a college career stressed by the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, many members of this year’s class were excited for a return to the traditional graduation experience.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced Larissa Iannella Oliveira, a sociology and legal studies graduate, to spend a year in Portugal taking La Sierra classes on Zoom. International pandemic restrictions prevented her return to the U.S. and to campus. “I was stuck out of the country for a whole year during the pandemic,” she said, noting that she was concerned her graduation might not be the hoped-for in-person event. “Coming here, it's just success. I'm happy about it.”
Perris resident Judith Ibarra, who was standing next to Oliveira in line early on Sunday, looked forward to receiving a Bachelor of Arts in psychology with a minor in forensic psychology. She aims to become a court interpreter. Three families arrived at La Sierra to cheer her graduation.
“It just means, you know, all my hard work paid off,” she said. “All our families are proud of us, we didn’t let them down, and it’s extra special because we get to be here in person. We know the last few years they weren’t able to celebrate. But we are here in honor of them and in honor of us.”
Ebubechi Ibika, a double major in marketing and management arrived at La Sierra from Kansas City, Missouri. The oldest of five siblings, he viewed his college graduation as an example-setting moment.
“It's been the most beautiful experience, just the whole journey,” Ibika said while he waited in line for graduation to start earlier in the morning. “You tend to look at the outcome and where you want to be, but I knew I had to get it done for me, my family, my city back home, for my siblings, and just to set an example that like, if I can do this, I can do anything, … me, my family, my siblings, all Black people, we can do it all. This is just the beginning, it is just the first step.
“It's so surreal,” he added. “I'm still just taking it in. I think it's gonna hit when I walk across the stage, but it’s just been a beautiful experience altogether. I wouldn't have it any other way.”
Live for Others
The Conferring of Degrees ceremony featured a commencement address by La Sierra University president Joy Fehr, who urged graduates to live for others and not just for themselves. She recounted the story of a Canadian wilderness camping and hiking trip with her husband and in-laws, during which she suffered a broken ankle. Because of the kindness of strangers, and in particular that of a young man, a member of a Canadian infantry regiment who carried her miles out of the mountains on his back, she was able to obtain medical attention by doctors and nurses at a local hospital.
“When we realize that life is not about us, that it’s about others, when we shift from egotism to altruism, when we do that, we find lasting, life-altering … moral joy,” Fehr told the graduates. “I shared my experience with you to turn the focus to the others in my story. They cared for, they stepped alongside, they loved someone who most of them they didn’t even know. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here today.
“For what idea are we willing to live and die?” she asked. “Live for others, not yourselves. Walk alongside them and support them. Carry them down the paths of life.”
Lawrence Steven “Steve” Dorsey III, La Sierra’s student association president, announced the senior class gift — a tree to be planted on Founders’ Green in memory of those lost. “This dream has not been a pursuit without trial,” he said in reference to the joys, pains, victories, and losses the students encountered along their college pathway. “However, we will never forgo remembrance of those we have lost along the way.… This tree will serve as a testament to the heart of the university, its students.”
Dorsey, who graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a religion minor this fall, will join a cohort of 18 college students selected from various universities for an 11-month California Senate Fellowship in Sacramento. He will serve as a full-time intern working on state public policy issues before entering a psychology graduate program at Fuller Seminary next year.
During the ceremony, several graduates were noted for the awards they received from the alumni association and from the College of Arts and Sciences, the H.M.S. Richards Divinity School, the School of Education, and the Tom and Vi Zapara School of Business.
Following the ceremony, hundreds of graduates, along with their family members and friends, spilled onto Founders’ Green to take photos and celebrate the occasion. Snacks and water were offered at canopies set up by the university’s three schools and its college.
Sephora Alvarez wiped tears of happiness from her eyes as she gathered with her family members. She is the first of her family to graduate and received a master’s degree in teaching. She will teach first grade at Loma Linda Academy this fall and previously taught at Ridgecrest Adventist Elementary school.
“She finally made it,” her father, Roberto Alvarez, said. “It means a lot as a family. [She’s] the first one out of six [to graduate from college]. We are so happy, she worked so hard every day, and couldn’t sleep for a few nights, but here it is.”
“I've been waiting for this for three years,” Sephora said. “Yeah, it was just really hard. So it means a lot.”
Jimenez Gonzalez and his family members — 11 in total — gathered to take photos. He showed the inscription on his graduation cap, which held a dedicatory message in elegant typography for his father, who passed away in 2021 from the COVID-19 virus.
His sister Maria commented on the significance of the occasion. “I’m here celebrating the graduation of my youngest brother, and he dedicated this day to my father, and he commemorated this graduation as a symbol to the love and support he gives us throughout our whole entire lives,” she said. “I am more than happy to say that I am [his] sister, and that we are a family united to celebrate him and another day in life.”
Chris Bauman graduated magna cum laude with dual degrees in marketing and management from the Zapara School of Business. He received multiple business school awards for academic excellence, for leadership as president of the Hispanic Business Incubator, and for entrepreneurship as part of the Project Utopia investment venture. He aims to jump into real estate after graduation while applying for jobs.
“It’s an amazing moment, I’m really excited,” he said following the ceremony. “It was very emotional seeing everyone.… It was awesome.”