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Orange County Focus

ORANGE : Grads' Prize Belongs to Family Too


The pomp and circumstance of Chapman College's commencement ceremony was more than just a rite of academic passage for the ones in black robes and mortarboards who received their degrees Sunday.

For the Mena and Rodriguez families standing on the sidelines, it was the first time anyone in either family had ever attended college, much less graduated.

"It's something very special for us because she met her goals," Everardo Mena said of his graduating 21-year-old daughter, Maria Isela, the third of his five children. "Education to me is the key to success," added the 60-year-old Santa Ana cabinetmaker.

Nearby, Ignacia Rodriguez cradled a dozen pink roses in her arms as she watched her 21-year-old daughter, Maraa, the eldest of six, file past to get her bachelor's degree in communications.

"I'm really happy, and I'm so proud of her," said the Santa Ana housewife, her eyes misting over.

The two families were among throngs of cheering friends and relatives who jammed the campus athletic field for the boisterous 2 1/2-hour ceremony, which was capped by an unauthorized burst of firecrackers behind the stage.

More than 500 graduates of the small Christian liberal-arts college were awarded master's and bachelor's degrees Sunday. Keynote speaker Jack B. Lindquist, president of Disneyland, urged them all to go out into the world and make their voices heard.

"Whatever you do in the years ahead, be noisemakers. There is too much quiet in the world today. What this world needs is some noisemakers," Lindquist said. At that, a roar of rowdy cheers rose from the graduating students.

"A noisemaker," he explained, "is someone who hears all the reasons for not tackling an impossible dream and goes on to make their dream possible."

Graduating senior John Nuzzo hopes to be a noisemaker in the best operatic tradition. The 25-year-old singer from Tokyo won enthusiastic applause when he reached for a high note in his performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the ceremony. This week, he hopes to audition for the Los Angeles Music Center opera group.

Nuzzo said he felt privileged to attend Chapman, which he feels is one of the best small colleges in the United States for a musical education. But it was rough going for the Japanese native, whose late father was a U.S. serviceman.

"It was such a cultural difference for me, but I'm really glad I hung in there," he said.

Some of Sunday's graduates had never attended classes on the campus in the heart of Orange's Old Town. Instead, they completed college classes at one of more than 50 academic centers throughout the United States and the Pacific Rim.

One such graduate was Gary Heidkamp, who attended Chapman's learning center in El Segundo.

"This is a very important day for me because it's taken me 22 years to get this degree," the 40-year-old Valencia resident said, waving his red leather-bound degree. "I had to do it one class at a time."

Small as it is, the sheepskin will mean an automatic promotion to computer technician at his company and a raise of nearly $10,000 a year, he said with a grin.

There were also the more traditional graduating seniors who not only had a sense of accomplishment but were also celebrating a job finally done.

The epitome of cool in her tortoise-shell Ray-Ban sunglasses and her moussed hairdo, Amie Vaughn hugged friends and schoolmates and made plans for later, more private celebrations.

"This is the best day of my life," exclaimed the 21-year-old native of Seattle. "Now I'm ready to tackle the future--and hopefully work in the music business."

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