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Reflections of First Virtual Commencement and Class of 2020’s Determination and Resiliency

Rio Salado staff applauding 2020 graduates and photos of students featured in this story Mountain Pointe High School dual enrollment graduate Cameron Cocalis Rio Salado President Smith with 2019 dual enrollment graduates Desert Vista dual enrollment graduate Ann Marie Jamieson Desert Vista dual enrollment alumni graduate Ethan Jamieson Rio Salado Virtual Commencement Banner Student speaker Ashanti Ruiz

Rio Salado College Hosts First Virtual Graduation Ceremony May 28 to Honor Class of 2020’s Determination and Resiliency in the Time of COVID-19

Inspiration, determination and resilience were the impetus and themes of Rio Salado College’s first virtual graduation ceremony hosted May 28, 2020.

“Twenty years from now you will be remembered for your resilience in this moment,” said Rio Salado Interim President Kate Smith during the streamed ceremony. “In just a few short months you've acquired the skills needed to adapt to unimaginable global changes and you have persevered. It would have been easy to give up, but you did not falter. With determination and the will to succeed, you persevered and completed your education. These are traits and characteristics that will serve you well throughout your life.”

Among those who persevered to achieve the extraordinary was Mountain Pointe High School graduate Cameron Cocalis who earned three associate degrees through Rio Salado’s dual enrollment program. Cocalis said he was inspired to pursue dual enrollment after a visit from his grandfather.

“When I was in grade school, my grandparents were in town visiting,” said Cocalis. “My grandpa was reading the Ahwatukee Foothills News, our local neighborhood newspaper, and there was an article about a girl from a local high school who had earned her AA degree while she was in high school. My grandfather was really impressed at her achievement and he read the article out loud to me. His reaction made an impact on me and made me think that I wanted to achieve the same thing.”

“Who knew that my father would inspire him so profoundly by simply choosing to read an article out loud at lunch to a first grader and taking the time to talk to Cameron about a girl, who we didn’t even know,“ said his mother Cindy Cocalis. “My father is extremely proud to see what Cameron has been able to do and feels great pride in being the one to have inspired him to even consider doing it. It goes to show that very small actions can have very large impacts and we just never know what might move someone else to set a goal and make it happen.”

Cocalis is graduating as a Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) honors student with an Associate of Arts (AA), Associate of General Studies (AGS) and Associate of Science degrees, which he thinks helped him on several fronts. “I am benefiting from dual enrollment by going into college with a considerable amount of my lower courses completed, at a much lower price,” said Cocalis. “I also feel that receiving the three degrees helped showcase my skills and dedication in my college application and helped me to get accepted into a highly selective school.” Cocalis will be attending the Colorado School of Mines in the fall to study Mechanical Engineering.

Cocalis is one of 207 high school students on track to graduate with associate degrees from Rio Salado during the 2019-2020 academic year. Thousands more are earning credits that transfer seamlessly to Arizona public colleges and 40+ colleges and universities across the country.

Siblings Ann Marie and Ethan Jamieson are among Rio Salado’s Desert Vista High School dual enrollment graduates.

Ann Marie is a 2020 Desert Vista graduate and PTK officer who earned an AA, AGS and a Certificate of Completion in Language Studies. Ann Marie has been accepted to Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University (ASU) and will begin a program of study in biomedical sciences this fall. “Because of dual enrollment, I am able to take higher level classes my first year at ASU, I no longer have to worry about taking my general education credits.” Ann Marie has her sights set on medical school.

Her older brother Ethan graduated from Desert Vista in 2017 with a considerable number of college credits and decided to complete one degree this year and ended up with two; an AA and AGS. “As a young man who works full time, this has been a HUGE cost savings for me and my family.” Ethan plans to transfer to ASU to complete a bachelor’s degree in Political Science.

“Our children achieved more than either of us in high school,” said their mother, Amy Jamieson. “We feel they matured faster, stayed out of trouble, received better grades, and worked harder than they would have if they had not been working toward their associate degrees while in high school.”

“It is absolutely worth it. It is absolutely manageable,” said Ann Marie. With Bob Brown’s help, I have achieved more than I could have ever dreamed in high school.”

Bob Brown serves as one of Rio Salado’s dual enrollment success coaches, helping students and families through the process of enrolling, choosing classes, transferring to other colleges and staying on track. He has worked directly with the Cocalis and Jamieson families and dozens of other students and families since joining the college’s dual enrollment team in 2008.

“We are so appreciative of Bob Brown and all the work he has personally put into our family,” said Amy Jamieson. “He is a local celebrity here in our home and neighborhood. We are on our third child going through dual enrollment planning to achieve two dual enrollment degrees after graduating two with multiple degrees.”

Rio Salado serves as Arizona’s largest provider of dual enrollment education, helping nearly 7,500 Maricopa County students at 43 schools across the Valley earn college and high school credits at the same time. Students attend Deer Valley, Heritage, Brophy College Prep, Desert Vista, Horizon, Mountain Pointe and Xavier College Prep in the Phoenix metropolitan area and Corona del Sol, McClintock and Tempe high schools in Tempe.

Joining the dual enrollment graduates and leading the virtual commencement ceremony was student speaker Ashanti Ruiz, who inspired viewers with a compelling speech about how she overcame many hardships to realize her dream of pursuing a college education and becoming a counselor.

“Despite coming from a broken home, being bullied, facing depression and anxiety, I survived through it all. I was able to learn from every fall. And I owe everything to my mom. She always made me feel like everything was going to be okay even when we were surrounded by nothing but shambles.

Perspective is such a powerful thing. Many people would have thought that life kicked me down endlessly and that I was the victim in my own narrative. It's not about how many times you get knocked down, it's the ability to get back up and take control of what happens next in your story.”

Ruiz grew up in Maryvale, AZ, and immersed herself in the community. She realized that her community needed more bilingual counselors, which inspired her to pursue a career in the field. “With the support of the people around me, I decided pursuing an online education at Rio Salado would be a great fit for me because of my work schedule and school commitments.”

Ruiz served as a PTK officer last year and played a leading role in many student projects. She is also one of two Rio Salado 2020 All-Arizona Academic Team scholars. Scholars are selected for demonstrating academic excellence and leadership and service to the community. The honor includes tuition to one of Arizona’s three state universities and a cash scholarship. Ruiz will be attending Barrett, the Honors College at ASU this fall to study psychology.

She concluded her speech encouraging students to persevere through their challenges. “We owe it to ourselves, our communities and the people who support us the most to continue pushing through those barriers. Our circumstances and misfortunes do not define us. Nothing can stop us from being successful— not even COVID-19.”

In this past year, Rio Salado College has awarded 4,806 degrees, certificates and other academic credentials to more than 4,256 graduates from Arizona and 32 other states across the country. Graduates include international students studying in the United States from 12 countries including Vietnam, Poland, Columbia and Bosnia–Herzegovina. More than 400 graduates began their academic journey with a GED® and more than 1,200 students were the first generation in their families to attend college.

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