When Ivonne Raya walks across the DeVore Stadium stage on May 24 during the 58th annual Commencement Ceremony, there will be one person missing from the audience: her mother.
Just less than one month ago, when students are trying to complete final projects, prepare for finals and choose colleges they’ll transfer to, Raya’s mother passed away after years of suffering from emphysema and other lung-related illnesses. Raya only missed one day of classes in the spring semester to assume responsibility for her mother’s funeral services.
Raya will still be smiling as much as the other 950 Southwestern College graduates and she’ll be donning a commencement cap dedicated to her mother that says, “Dear Mami, I hope I can be as amazing as you were!”
“I do have a lot of pain inside of me, but I keep smiling,” Raya said. “That’s what my mom always did. She just always kept smiling no matter how much she suffered, and I’m going to live by that.”
That honor is a testament to Raya’s mother who instilled in her a passion, dedication and determination to succeed, especially in her education. Since the beginning of her journey at Southwestern College two years ago, Raya has balanced school and caring for her ailing mother and helping support her younger brother, who suffers from depression. Raya has earned a 3.8 GPA and has been accepted to transfer into some of the best schools in California, like San Diego State University, UC Berkeley and UC San Diego.
Raya has chosen to transfer to U.C. San Diego with the goals of eventually earning her doctorate in history to become a history professor.
“My mom wanted me to graduate, that was our goal,” Raya said. “I hold on to that when things are difficult and I’m always thinking for my future that my mom fought so hard to give me.”
A typical week for Raya would be spent going four to five times a week to Scripps Hospital in La Jolla to visit her mother, often spending entire weekends there. She faced tough decisions, like approving all her mother’s treatments, medicine and procedures and even made the decision to put her mother into an induced coma. Among all that, Raya couldn’t let herself deter from her goal of finishing Southwestern College in two years.
“My mom was always a very strong and independent woman,” Raya said. “She always told me that you couldn’t stop and you had to keep going. School is so important to me. I couldn’t fall behind.”
Raya’s education started at Southwestern College when she walked into the Higher Education Center at San Ysidro, just a 10-minute walk from her house. Raya was part of the first cohort of the First-Year Experience Program at the Higher Education Center at San Ysidro and is now a peer mentor for the program. Raya has a truly special connection to the staff and the counselors at the Higher Education Center at San Ysidro. They have helped her both achieve her academic goals and face her hurdles in life.
“Here at San Ysidro, we’re a family,” Raya said. “The people here do more for students. They stay late. They’ll come in their free time. They’ll reach out to you personally. My family is very broken, so this was my second family.”
Now Raya gets to help students like her as a peer mentor for the First-Year Experience Program and meets one-on-one with brand new high school graduates enrolling in classes at the center. She helps set them up for success.
“I help them find resources here at Southwestern College. I answer their questions. I point them to the right tutors and counselors,” Raya said. “People at San Ysidro really transformed me, and this is my way to pay them back and help the next group of students.”
Two San Ysidro counselors who have been instrumental to Raya’s success are Lisa Rodriguez and Osvaldo Amezuca.
“I remember the first day when she started my First-Year Experience class, Raya immediately stood out,” Rodriguez said. “She’s very determined to be successful regardless of her obstacles. We call her ‘extra,’ because she does everything at 150 percent. She does nothing haphazardly.”
Raya attributes her tenacity to her mother, who faced a tough life as an immigrant and overcame an abusive relationship with Raya’s father to provide for her two children.
“My mom had a hard life and she still decided to have me and to raise me and educate me and to support me,” she said. “She sacrificed everything so I could study and live my dreams. I was the light in her eyes and she’s the reason I am who I am.”
To Raya, the Southwestern College Commencement Ceremony is a day of happiness and celebration, first and foremost. Both she and her mom have worked their entire lives for the moment Raya becomes a college graduate. Raya says she dedicates her education, her degree and her entire experience as a student to her mother.
“I did the hardest walk already during my mother’s funeral service when I walked her urn down the aisle,” Raya said. “My walk across the stage at commencement is a celebratory walk. I know she’ll be there walking with me and I know I’m going to make her proud.”