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CSUB students overcome hardships of past year, honored during Friday graduation ceremony

Getting a bachelor’s degree is always hard work, and even in a normal year most students at Cal State Bakersfield don’t have an easy road.

But this last year hasn’t been normal by any stretch. The seniors who crossed the stage to get their diploma on Friday had to deal with the fallout of a pandemic while they were finishing their toughest classes online.

Dark humor about the tough year abounded on the mortarboards of graduates. One with blue glitter read: “I do wish I hadn’t cried so much.”

That’s why Cal State University Chancellor Joseph Castro offered something of an apology along with words of inspiration to those receiving their bachelor’s degrees in a commencement ceremony at CSUB on Friday.

“The last year and a half of your college experience was not what you’d expected. It’s not what any of us could have expected or anticipated,” Castro said. “I understand, and I am sorry.”

But he said he expects that after time the disappointment will fade and give way to confidence, because of the resilience and ingenuity students have developed to deal with the “extraordinary challenges of this extraordinary time.”

The graduates on Friday morning already seemed to have a sense of what they had accomplished at the joyous event. They beamed, they strutted and they pumped their fists on stage as they accepted their diplomas from CSUB President Lynnette Zelezny, like they had just crossed the finish line of a very long race.

Elizabeth Bellard decided to go back to school later in life so she could become a child advocate. She had the support of family, friends and professors who made it possible for her to get a degree in Child, Adolescent and Family Studies. They helped push her when it got tough.

“There were times I wanted to say ‘Forget going to school, I’m done,’” she said. “But to be able to be 45 and walk across that stage, I am so proud of myself.”

Bellard said this year was the hardest out of all her years of college. But her mortarboard read: “Even the global pandemic couldn’t stop me.”

Many CSUB students were the first in their family to graduate from college. When Zelezny asked graduates to stand if they were the first in their family, nearly everyone did.

The Barajas family was experiencing a swell of pride. Sisters Eileen and Ashley Barajas were both set to graduate this weekend in separate ceremonies. Their mother, Edith Barajas, said it set a good example for the family.

“Two daughters at the same time,” Barajas said in Spanish. “We’re all so proud.”

There were other obstacles students faced in their studies. Graduate Annamae Aubrey was exuberant outside the ceremony as she snapped selfies with her tight-knit circle of sisters, mother and grandmother. Aubrey had lost her father to cancer and her grandpa in the last year.

“This is kind of the light at the end of the tunnel for everyone,” said her sister Sally DeVargas.

Through tears of joy, Aubrey said the fact her mother, Maria Crisafulli, who came from Rome, gave up so much to raise her helped inspire the pursuit of her degree.

“She sacrificed a lot of opportunities to be able to raise us to be where we are today,” DeVargas said. “This is a big moment for her and this solidified our success as a family. She did it for the family and we’re so proud.”

One graduate, Leah Felicia Rivera, found out she had a tough road ahead just as she was wrapping up her degree in Child, Adolescent and Family Studies. She found out she has breast cancer, and she starts chemotherapy next week.

But she has one unit to finish from her bachelor’s degree, and she wants to get a master’s.

“I definitely, definitely don’t plan on stopping school,” she said. “I love school; it gives me purpose.”

Her mortarboard read: “Dear Cancer, You will not stop me!”

Even though she had a doctor’s appointment to worry about later on Friday, she was doing her best to enjoy her graduation in the morning. Her brother, fiance and mother were there supporting her.

“It’s very emotional, and it’s hard to process everything,” said her brother Albert River. “But I’m super proud, and it means so much to just to see her walk the stage.”