June 4, 2019
Largest SMC Graduating Class
A Veteran, a DREAMer, and a Mentor Step toward Futures of Transformation
Among 5,905 Students to Receive 9,110 Degrees & Certificates from Santa Monica College, Largest Graduating Class in College’s History; California Secretary of State Alex Padilla will Speak at June 11 Commencement
SANTA MONICA, CA—Maya Thompson, who will be the student speaker at Santa Monica College’s 89th commencement ceremony next Tuesday, would like to establish a nonprofit performing arts center for disadvantaged youth; she has also been mentoring John Adams Middle School students. Veteran Sergeant Noe Aguirre, of the United States Marine Corps, looks at adversity as “a rite of passage” and seeks to lift his fellow veterans. Cristian Vasquez, a DREAMer and the first in his family to go to college, aspires to be a role model for his siblings.
These three are among 5,905 students to receive 9,110 degrees and certificates from Santa Monica College (SMC), the largest-ever graduating class in the college’s history (4,826 students earned 6,225 degrees and certificates last year—marking a 22 percent increase in the number of graduates). More than 750 graduates are expected to take part in the 89th commencement ceremony, which will take place on Tuesday, June 11 at 6 p.m. at Corsair Field on SMC’s main campus; California Secretary of State Alex Padilla will be the commencement speaker.
Noe Aguirre: Volunteering for Transition
“My fellow Infantry and Department of Defense service members know me as Sergeant Aguirre, of the United States Marine Corps,” said combat action veteran Noe Aguirre, of Mission Hills. While deployed in Afghanistan, he began thinking about his future and his education. “I looked at a map and, since I know the area, I decided SMC was the place for me.”
Noe suffers from several combat-related disabilities, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by constant head-banging from his helmet during rides in the turret of gun trucks on rough roads. “Overcoming those hurdles means understanding yourself and your abilities in the present moment,” he said. SMC’s Veterans Success Center and the Center for Students with Disabilities “opened my world. The people are amazing and understand what veterans go through.” He particularly credits speech therapist Stephanie Lewis for helping him.
"Remember to look at adversity as a rite of passage," said Noe. "The experience will make you stronger and wiser." Noe is a volunteer and 1st Vice Commander at the American Legion Palisades Post 283, which has programs to help homeless, at-risk, and transitioning veterans connect to organizations and services that can help. He also volunteers at Meals on Wheels West, where he helped develop a program that feeds veterans of all ages. The Veterans Administration is expanding the vet-to-vet outreach program Noe started — the Meals on Wheels Veteran’s HomeFront — to other states.
Noe will graduate from SMC with an Associate degree in General Science. He plans to transfer, focus on sports medicine, and work to develop a program for active infantry to minimize acute injuries during training and in the field.
Maya Thompson: Still I Rise
Maya Thompson is Student Speaker for SMC’s 2019 Commencement. She decided to attend SMC after googling “Top 10 Community Colleges in California” — Santa Monica College was first on the list. “As a nontraditional student, it was difficult for me at first,” she said. “However, taking that initial step ultimately changed my life for the better.”
She joined the Black Collegians and Adelante programs, as well as Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. “Getting involved with clubs on campus had a big impact on me,” said Maya. “The support I received from the Umoja Community and Adelante family gave me a solid foundation and provided me with a second place to call home.” For the last year, Maya faced homelessness while pursuing her degree at SMC.
“I’ve made the ultimate sacrifice to fulfill my goals. It was a long hard road, but I am proud of all my collegiate accomplishments,” she said. Maya recently received her second Academic Achievement Certificate from Black Collegians, and she was also awarded the Youth Empowerment Scholarship through the SMC Foundation. She is very active in giving back to the community and donates time to various organizations. During the spring semester, Maya was a mentor in SMC’s Sister to Sister program at John Adams Middle School (JAMS).
“Volunteerism is the backbone of my existence,” said Maya. “Giving back to others in need is an honor and a privilege that I gladly take on.” Maya is a scholar in UCLA’s Center for Community College Partnerships Program, which assists students in transferring to UCLA. “The CCCP program has strengthened my academic knowledge, and given me the courage to obtain the unthinkable.”
Maya aspires to use her background and education to open a performing arts center for youth in the community. “I strive to motivate and educate our future leaders. My ultimate goal in life is to leave my mark on the world as an individual who was dedicated to influencing positive change through media, art, and entertainment.” She will graduate from SMC with an Associate degree in Social and Behavioral Sciences and will transfer to the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures with a minor in Film Studies.
Cristian Vasquez: A DREAMer Aspires to Inspire
Cristian Vasquez is the sports editor for SMC’s student-run newspaper, The Corsair. A DREAMer (an AB 540 student) whose parents brought him to the U.S. at age 4 from a small town in Oaxaca, Mexico, he is first in his family to go to college. A speaker of English, Spanish, and Zapotec, Cristian wants a career as a professional sports reporter. “I’m interested in eventually going into sports announcing,” he said, “but first I plan to work as a sports writer on a professional level, and then an editor.”
Cristian was accepted at Biola University after graduating from Hollywood High School, but could not afford to attend. So he turned to SMC. “I had heard great things about the campus from friends there,” he said.
He credits journalism instructors Sharyn Obsatz and Ashanti Blaize-Hopkins for putting him on his path to sports journalism and helping him overcome the intimidation he felt when he first arrived at SMC. “And Darryl Keith-Ogata showed me how communication is more than just speech, and how much it impacts life,” said Cristian. “And my counselor, Maibe Banuelos — what a fighter! I had an admission problem with my transfer school, and she fixed it.”
“My family has been the best inspiration for my journey,” said Cristian, who hopes to inspire his 14-year-old brother and 12-year-old sister. "It's especially important to my mom,” he said. “She always saw me as a role model.”
Cristian plans to transfer to CSU Long Beach and major in journalism.
Visit the Graduation Stories website to read several more stories about this year’s graduates, as well as those featured in years prior. Find more details on the June 11 commencement at the SMC Graduation website. For the tenth year in a row, the ceremony will also be webcast live and available on the college’s website so that families and friends worldwide who are not able to attend graduation will be able to watch the ceremony and see the graduates receive their diplomas.