Thousands of Cal Poly graduates on Saturday celebrated the end of finals and homework and prepared to transition into real-world careers and adventures.
Two ceremonies — one at 9 a.m. and another at 4 p.m — marked the graduation of more than 2,725 students from the university’s colleges of Engineering; Architecture and Environmental Design; Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences and Science and Mathematics.
The remaining more than 1,210 graduates from the College of Liberal Arts and the Orfalea College of Business celebrate their commencement at 9 a.m. Sunday. Ninety Extended Education students were also awarded diplomas.
Many jubilant graduates arrived at the Saturday morning ceremony wearing caps elaborately decorated with flowers, bows and inspirational messages — one student even turned his cap into a replica of Pride Rock from “The Lion King,” complete with a glued-on Simba stuffed animal. Leis made of flowers, candy and even money were also a common sight.
“You might even say the graduates, themselves, are drunk with joy — or something,” said Academic Senate Chairman Gary Lever during the ceremony, referring to a Cal Poly tradition of imbibing at local bars in the early morning hours before commencement.
But the ceremony’s joyful tone was tempered with one of mission and purpose.
Saturday’s keynote addresses were delivered by Leon Panetta, who most recently served as Secretary of Defense and director of the CIA in the Obama administration. His 36-year career in public service also includes acting as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and representing the Central Coast in Congress for eight terms.
Panetta called on graduates to do their part to help the United States fulfill its potential in the years to come. He said a recent poll taken by his own Panetta Institute for Public Policy at Cal State Monterey Bay showed that 73 percent of young people think they’ll have a tougher time achieving the American dream than their parents did.
Panetta said today’s young people have many legitimate concerns, including the state of the economy, political dysfunction and the “bizarre and crazy” politics taking place.
“I believe we are at a turning point in this year of 2016,” Panetta said. “I think America can take one of two paths into the future.”
One path would lead to a “renaissance” for the United States and would involve strong leadership and economic growth, Panetta said. The alternative route, he said, would lead to an “America in decline,” constantly jumping from crisis to crisis and divided by fear and prejudice.
“What path we take will be determined by whether we’re willing to fight for a better America,” Panetta said.
He called on students to detach from smartphones and social media and relate to others on a face-to-face basis. Panetta said it’s important for young people to serve the country in some capacity and that he would like to see a program that helps such students pay for college.
“All of you have to be willing to assume your responsibilities as citizens,” Panetta said. “To fight to make the American dream real, for yourselves and for your children.”
After the ceremony, as graduates snapped photos and embraced their families and friends, a few said they’re grateful to have their diplomas and happy their academic work is finally complete.
Joshua Hafford, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering, was also surrounded by a large family. About 20 relatives came from as far away as Atlanta, New York City and Memphis, Tennessee, to see him receive his diploma.
Hafford now plans to move to Seattle, where he’s accepted an engineering job. He said he’s finally “glad to be done” with his schoolwork.
“No more lab, no more classes, no more projects,” Hafford said, although family members jokingly reminded him his job will likely be more difficult than his classes were.
Marlene Troncoso, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering, was also joined by a large family — 28 relatives, all of whom drove up to San Luis Obispo from Lakewood, near Long Beach, that morning. A few family members waved letters spelling out “Marlene,” which they’d cut out of foam board.
While juggling bouquets of roses, Troncoso said she transferred to Cal Poly from Cerritos College. Troncoso said she now plans to move to the Bay Area to start a job as a reliability engineer. Most of her family was visiting Cal Poly’s campus for the first time, she said.
“I’m very blessed,” Troncoso said. “I’m very surprised they were all able to make it.”