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Degrees of Separation

Cal Lutheran Graduates Told School Is Out, 'Life Is in Session'


THOUSAND OAKS — As her guide dog pulled and panted his way across the stage, Gayane Pogosyan beamed as she reached for her diploma.

It was a breathless moment for the 52-year-old and one that marked a fresh start after a decade spent struggling to center herself as her sight dwindled to darkness.

Pogosyan was among 648 Cal Lutheran University students who graduated Saturday.

She held her new master's degree tightly and spoke with confidence about helping other women achieve their academic goals in her new role as a college counselor.

"There is nothing that people cannot accomplish," she said. "Anything can be done. It's just your attitude."

The two-hour ceremony took place in the school's small Mt. Clef Stadium, before an audience of families and friends who shouted, cheered and hit air horns when the name of a graduate was announced.

Decked in mortarboards, black gowns and leis of violet orchids, students shouted and raised their arms to salute each speaker who referenced their pending launch from campus life.

Guest speaker Frank Maguire, the marketing guru who helped launch companies such as Federal Express and Kentucky Fried Chicken to global markets, earned a standing ovation from the graduates.

"Parents: It's over," said Maguire, president of Hearth Communications Group of Westlake Village. "Honored graduates of this institution: Life's in session. Let's get it on!"

Student body president Gabriel Laizer Jr., who plans to pursue a career in diplomacy, joked with his peers from the stage.

"This class has endured Y2K, El Nino, Monica Lewinsky . . . .," he said. "And the school cafeteria!"

Laizer was raised with six siblings in Tanzania. His American missionary teacher, Ruth Klavano, sponsored him to come to Washington in 1994. Two years later, he enrolled at Cal Lutheran.

After he crossed the stage, Laizer's mother who wore a brightly colored African dress, squeezed his hands and beamed with pride.

Others waited out the warm morning holding flowers and balloons and bragging about the new graduates.

With a large bouquet of roses, Kathy Senella spoke excitedly about her friend, Jacqueline Bourgault, a 36-year-old mother of three who was receiving a bachelor's degree in liberal studies.

"We met when our kids were in kindergarten," said Senella, 42, of Simi Valley. "Now, she wants to be a teacher. I'm so proud of her! I have a car full of balloons for her, too!"

Melissa Medeiros, 28, and co-worker Janice San Antonio, 25, patiently waited for their friend, Christine Giuffre, to receive her bachelor's degree in computer science. The three friends work together at a Woodland Hills insurance company.

"She went to school and worked full time," San Antonio said. "It took her about seven years to finish."

"But she's strong," Medeiros added. "She even motivates us a lot to keep trying stuff."

After the ceremony, smiling graduates exchanged hugs and handshakes and sighs of relief.

"It feels like a big weight off my shoulders," Will Plemons, 25, said after receiving his master's degree in counseling and guidance. "It was a struggle. But it was worth it."

Pogosyan, who also earned a counseling and guidance master's degree, was surrounded by her family and friends and her yellow Labrador retriever, Ayley.

She talked about leaving her career as a violin teacher when she and her family left Armenia in the mid-1970s for the United States. Pogosyan spent many years working as a tailor, a bookkeeper and an occasional Russian and Armenian translator.

When she developed retinitis pigmentosa, she realized she needed to return to school. Returning as an older student never troubled her, Pogosyan said.

"I'm proud of my age," she said. "I'm wiser. Much more together and smarter!"

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