“Progress has a beginning, but it has no ending” best describes the Robert E. Burton Adult School 2016 Graduation Commencements.
During this summer’s ceremony more than 120 inspired, incarcerated men at San Quentin finally reveled in their own personal accomplishments and triumphs. “Don’t Just Dream Inspire, Don’t Just Imagine Create, Don’t Just Believe Achieve” were the self-motivating factors that highlighted this year’s program.
Family, friends and educational staff sat in the main visiting room with students in caps and gowns. All were filled with excitement as master of ceremonies Wade Burton greeted the presentation and posting of the Colors by the Vietnam Veterans Group of San Quentin and then introduced the 2016 Robert E. Burton Adult graduation classes.
This year’s core programs were represented by the General Education Development graduates. Twelve enthusiastic and proud students realized that it is never too late to get an education.
On hand to receive their hard-earned diplomas were Tamon Halfin, Erik Longfellow, Phillip Morris, Fidel Salcerdo, David Silva and Randy Silva. Those who received their GEDs in absentia were William Branscomb, Adman Ibarra, Nicholas Rodriguez, Satinder Singh, Keith Smith and Eugene Williams.
Halfin, a 29-year-old graduate, saw years of frustration come to fruition after receiving his diploma. “I had to start doing more positive things in life. I wasted time getting nothing done. Having this degree gives me confidence to continue adding more positive things to my life. I like the feeling. San Quentin had a steady program for me to get this accomplished.”
Halfin’s mother, Teresa Lindsay, added, “He has evolved as a person and taking responsibility for his actions. He’s paying his dues, and I’m proud of him. If people know better, they will do better. That’s the power of education. It’s up to that person to do what they can to show gratitude for a second chance; also, it takes family support.”
David Silva felt the pride of his accomplishments. “It’s great to have my family share in this experience,” he said. “My next step is college. I’m going for an A.A. (Associate of Arts) degree.” Silva’s sister, Luz Gordillo, added, “I am proud of him. The way he was living, we didn’t know if he was going to make it. Seeing him accomplish this is a relief.”
The High School Equivalency Test program had four graduates, who worked in preparation for much better things to come in their futures. Those receiving recognition were Ricky Bates, Lee Conley, Shawn Reyes and James Robbins.
Lee Conley’s family was there cheering him on, especially his son and daughter-in-law. Jason came all the way from Texas with his wife Angel. He hasn’t seen his father in two years, and characterizes his graduation as awesome, a big achievement. “In fact, I was a little nervous to see him after two years. But to listen to him talk about his kids and how life (time passing) can get away from you,” made this family reunion even more special. For Angel, you could see how proud she was of her father-in-law. “He’s never lost hope. He never gave up. We’re proud,” she said.
The popular Career Technical Education Computer Literacy program had an enormous success and impact again on this year’s program, according to the instructor, K. Bhatt. He said he had one of the biggest and most successful graduation classes since the program was implemented in 2014.
This year’s computer class saw 83 students from the six-month training program receive certificates of completion. Many of them needed a vocational trade, per the Board of Parole Hearing requirements, but there were other students who graduated who had never touched a computer previously.
“It was exhilarating,” said Nathan McKinney. “There was just so much to take in during these six months. Personally, I could use another 12 months of training.”
Garyon Nettles sat among the graduates with a proud sense of accomplishment. For him, it was more than just a commencement. His sister, Debbie, was in the audience, feeling the same excitement. “I’m so very proud of him because he’s doing something to better his life. I want the world to know Garyon is doing something positive.” His daughter, Garyanna, couldn’t stop talking about her dad. “He’s more than just a statistic; he’s going to be a greater person because of the programs here.”
Louie Bucao’s family beamed with pride during the ceremonies, “I’m so proud to see him doing so well,” his aunt said.
Carl Smith’s graduation had a very special and unique characteristic. His name stood out as the most obvious on this year’s program announcement. He was the only person from Electronics to receive recognition for his achievement.
One of the more popular curriculums at San Quentin is Dante Callegari’s Building Maintenance program because it gives men a real skill-set that is transferable to real-time experience. He says his students learned and developed a work ethic far exceeding his expectations and now is replicated throughout the California prison system.
Damien Coleman, a keynote speaker, told the audience, “It’s not easy graduating in this environment, and I thank all of you for supporting our program. He talked about how building houses from the ground up gave him confidence. “Today, I can compete with anyone out there in the world.”
He thanked Dante “for treating us all like men and not just inmates.” Coleman is a confirmed believer that, “You can grow a rose from concrete! Yes, it can happen.”
Among this summer’s proud class recipients were also Coastline Community College graduates:
- Craigen Armstrong, A.S. Degree in Business;
- Lani Beaty A.A., A.S. Business Administration, A.S. General Business;
- Glen Mason, Certificate of Achievement in Business;
- Quinton Walker, A.A. Arts and Humanities, A.S. Social and Behavioral Science.
Lassen Community College graduate Somden Thongsy received an A.A. degree in Social Science.
George “Mesro” Coles-EL, a teacher’s aide in GED, who helped many of the students throughout the year, said, “These guys are really cool. They have a really strong work ethic, and they’re proud of their advancement. They’re really a good group of guys, and I wish them the best. Graduation ceremonies are a great thing, especially with all the stigmas out there surrounding us. It’s great to have these moments that show these guys are not only trying to make their lives better, but I see them making other guys’ lives better too.”
Testing Coordinator Dr. Tom Bruno commented, “For me, seeing guys come in here and make the most out of themselves… They improve themselves so that they’re better prepared to function when they leave. A lot of guys come here, waste their time, and leave worse off than when they came.” He has worked in the Education Department for 17 years.
K. Williams, an academic instructor and state employee who has worked at San Quentin for four years, said, “I saw this year’s event as an important step for all participants because we get to see the fruits of our labors. We get to see how pleased their families are. Congratulations on a job well done.”