Three Graduating SMC Students Share Their Stories

Stepping Out to a New World

Three Graduating SMC Students
Praveen Sahabandu, Dalia Soto-Beltran, and Aurelia Rhymer, are three of the 4,247 students who will be receiving 3,671 Associate degrees and 1,526 certificates of achievement from Santa Monica College this year. About 650 students are expected to take part in the commencement ceremony at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, June 14 at Corsair Field.

Aurelia Rhymer had no idea that her dream of going to UCLA was even a possibility in her life, much less how to make it come true. Praveen Sahabandu faced a difficult childhood and the death of his mother when he was 17. Dalia Soto-Beltran struggled through a trying time adjusting to life in a new country and a new culture.

At 6 p.m. on Tuesday, June 14 at Corsair Field – amid loud cheers and applause – Rhymer, Sahabandu, and Soto-Beltran will be among the thousands of students graduating from Santa Monica College, which will award a record-setting 3,671 Associate degrees and 1,526 certificates of achievement to 4,247 students ranging in age from 16 to 72. The commencement speaker will be Loyola Marymount University President Timothy Law Snyder, Ph.D.

Aurelia Rhymer: Dreamer Turned Doer

Aurelia Rhymer admitted that she had some growing up to do when she first arrived at SMC, dreaming of one day attending UCLA. And she credits her mother, her religious faith, and her SMC counselors for giving her the direction she needed to get started, and for keeping her motivated as she worked to turn her dream into reality.

First, Rhymer joined SMC’s Black Collegians program, where she thrived and matured into a leader.

Then, when she “lost confidence” in her abilities while taking science classes, she forced herself to overcome her aversion to asking for help. The SMC counselors Rhymer reached out to for support encouraged her to join the STEM program.

After that, everything changed. And Rhymer was unstoppable. She was named a President’s Ambassador, and selected by the SMC Foundation to serve as a Dale Ride Intern in the Washington, D.C., offices of Congresswoman Janice Hahn and the humanitarian agency CARE. “All these experiences made me who I am today,” said Rhymer, who wants to change the landscape of public health and the practice of medicine in her South Los Angeles community.

Rhymer also wants to change perspectives on education. She remembers how the kids in her neighborhood thought of USC – only a stone’s throw away – as a place “far up on the mountain.” She wants to show them that “just because you live in a low-income neighborhood, does not mean you can’t get an education and change your life.”

Rhymer graduates from SMC with not one, but two degrees: an Associate Degree in Liberal Arts - Social and Behavioral Science, and an Associate Degree in General Science. She is transferring to UCLA as an anthropology major.

Praveen Sahabandu: Strength from Adversity

Praveen Sahabandu is living proof that adversity can make a person, and not break him. He did not have an easy childhood, but the difficult circumstances life dealt him only made him stronger.

When he was 17, Sahabandu‘s mother passed away. He went to work full time soon after, and decided to also enroll in a university in his native Halifax, where he floundered. “I was just scraping by,” he said.

A cousin of his who had attended Santa Monica College told Sahabandu what a great college it was, and that SMC was somewhere a person could “start over.” At SMC, Sahabandu found a community – staff and other students – who helped him discover and explore his incredible potential. He also joined the STEM program, was invited to become a President’s Ambassador, and got involved serving on several institutional committees. This summer, he will be one of only a handful of students working as a paid intern at a UCLA biochemistry lab.

Sahabandu hopes to do research on heart disease, and on the optimization of drugs within the human body, a desire that he has had since he was a young boy. His mother – who suffered from a number of health issues – had needed to take many different kinds of pain medication. “I remember thinking there’s got to be a way to make this better,” he said.

Sahabandu wants to be a strong model for his family, and that always makes him “try a little harder.” He graduates with an Associate Degree in General Science and is transferring to California State University, Long Beach as a biochemistry major.

Dalia Soto-Beltran: Life with an Open Heart and Mind

Dalia Soto-Beltran was 14 when she immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico with her family. She eventually empowered her mom to divorce her father and move to Los Angeles for new opportunities. “We came to L.A. with whatever fit in the car,” said Soto-Beltran.

The family persevered and started a new life. “My mom is very strong and started working right away,” she said, “and even though it was from paycheck to paycheck, she kept going to ‘build the castle from rocks.’”

Soto-Beltran also started working at various retail and food service places to help support her family and her education. From Aeropostale to Fatburger in high school to California Pizza Kitchen while going to college, if she could do anything to help her mom, “I would help her,” she said. “It’s very rewarding. At the end of the day, it feels good to help her, because she doesn’t feel as much of a burden when she is doing all the payments.”

Soto-Beltran and her mom came to explore SMC and “just fell in love with the campus, the students, professors, and the energy,” she said. “I decided to enroll here because of the diversity, and it felt like home for me.”

Soto-Beltran joined the Adelante program – which provides free tutoring and helpful career resources for SMC students – and has worked at the Career Services Center and the Athletics Department. “I feel like I’m part of a family,” she said. “I’m helping others, and also learning about myself.”

SMC Sociology Professor Rebecca Romo calls Soto-Beltran a cultural navigator who can weather different circumstances with ease because she finds ways to build relationships and resources to be successful. Her success “inspires me because of the insurmountable obstacles that she has overcome,” said Professor Romo. ”Students like her make me proud to teach at SMC.”

The admiration flows both ways. “The instructors at SMC are amazing,” said Soto-Beltran. “They are humble, but accomplished in their fields, knowledgeable, and passionate.” She added that she was “inspired by Professor Romo’s class to do documentaries that show what we sometimes ignore from society, these everyday questions about the way the world works. When you see the world with your heart and mind open, you can explore, grow, and learn. We are always evolving.”

This spring break, Soto-Beltran studied abroad in South Korea. “Korea was just beautiful. The people, the history, the culture, the smells – I loved it!” she said. “I went to Korea because I knew it was different from my Mexican culture and the American culture I’ve been accustomed to now.”

This fall, Soto-Beltran will transfer to UC Berkeley to study media and communication studies. She aspires to be a documentary filmmaker.

Please visit to find more stories about this year’s SMC graduates, and for more details on the commencement ceremony to be held June 14.

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