MSJC celebrates record-breaking class with virtual graduation ceremony

Yolanda Diego, 37, of Hemet is one of 1,958 graduates receiving degrees at Mt. San Jacinto College’s annual graduation Thursday, May 21. Diego serves as the student speaker during the ceremony. Valley News/ MSJC photo

SAN JACINTO – Yolanda Diego had much more to celebrate than the average graduate when she served as the student speaker of Mt. San Jacinto College’s virtual graduation ceremony Thursday, May 21.

The 37-year-old Hemet resident began to pursue her higher education in the early 2000s, when she attended community college in East Los Angeles, where she grew up. But substance abuse, some time living on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles and a growing family paused that journey. In January 2018, just a few weeks after having a baby, the mother of eight children and a stepdaughter began pursuing her communications degree at MSJC, determined to finish what she started.

“All the help and the resources that I got from MSJC were what I needed to succeed. Without those resources, I probably would be lost,” Diego said, who also celebrates 10 years of sobriety this month. “It’s never too late.”

Diego spoke to the largest graduating class in MSJC history when it held its inaugural virtual graduation ceremony Thursday, May 21. Like other colleges throughout the area MSJC held its annual ceremony online to reduce the spread of COVID-19 during the current pandemic.

Mt. San Jacinto College awarded a record-breaking 3,554 degrees and certificates to 1,958 graduates. That’s 251 more graduates than 2019, when the previous record was set. The graduates earned a total of 3,246 associate degrees and 308 career certificates, as some students earned more than one degree, certificate or a combination.

Menifee resident Brandy Donini, 46, is one of 1,958 graduates receiving degrees at Mt. San Jacinto College’s annual graduation Thursday, May 21. Donini and a few of her fellow MSJC nursing students are among the first to volunteer their efforts at the COVID-19 testing site at Lake Elsinore’s Storm Stadium. Valley News/ MSJC photo

Menifee resident Brandy Donini, 46, first attended MSJC in 1998. But life took priority. She raised a family, suffered a cancer scare and worked several great jobs over the years, but an instinct for helping others convinced her to return to MSJC to pursue a degree in nursing.

Donini’s final semester at MSJC has reaffirmed that calling, she said. When COVID-19 testing sites launched in Riverside County in mid-March, Donini and a few of her fellow MSJC nursing students were among the first to volunteer their efforts at Storm Stadium in Lake Elsinore.

After all these years, Donini looked forward to finally graduating from MSJC.

“For those of you who don’t think it’s possible, it is, it really is when you set goals and you put your mind to something,” the honors students said. “And I’m not talking long-term goals. I’m talking short-term goals. Make sure you meet the short-term goals and that you know what you need to do to reach your end goal. In conclusion, don’t give up. Life happens to everybody.”

The graduation ceremony also featured speeches from Roger Schultz, Ph.D., superintendent and president of MSJC, and Jeremy Brown, Ph.D., the college’s interim vice president of instruction; and video interviews with Victor Llamas, president of the Student Government Association and a San Jacinto resident who will head to the University of California Berkeley to pursue a bachelor’s degree in math; student trustee Allison Salas, a Menifee resident who will return to MSJC in the fall as she pursues a career as a registered nurse, and Bernardo Britto, a nursing major originally from Nigeria who now lives in Banning and plans to transfer to California State University San Bernardino.

As for Diego, her educational journey will continue when she joins her oldest daughter in college this fall.

“I’m walking into those doors at Cal State San Bernardino hand in hand with my daughter,” Diego said, choking up. “I walked her into her elementary school in kindergarten, and now she’s walking me through the university doors.”

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Submitted by Mt. San Jacinto College.