By Steve Virgen
Photos By Joe Bergman Photography
The 46 adult graduates of the EPIC de Cesar Chavez High School appeared nervous and excited as they waited to enter the Bakersfield College indoor theater on the evening of Saturday, June 17. Then, as “Pomp and Circumstance” played in the background , they walked in, smiling and nodding as family and friends took photos.
The graduates—many of whom overcame severe hardship to earn their diplomas—served as an inspiration to many. Yet, they also received inspiration during the ceremony, including from keynote speaker, Maribel Montelongo, a former FIELD alumna herself.
“Today you not only get a diploma,” said Montelongo, who recently earned her doctorate in Higher Education Leadership at Cal State Bakersfield. “Today you will be given a key. A key that opens new doors, new opportunities. This key will open doors that have been closed.”
Montelongo, who delivered her speech in Spanish, was 15-years-old when she took an ESL class with FIELD in Wasco, CA. In her speech, she encouraged the graduates to continue their education, “to gain the best version for yourself, your family and your community.”
The EPIC graduates took the time to celebrate their accomplishments during the ceremony, with several of them dancing after hearing their names called. And while the graduates came from a variety of backgrounds, they all had one thing in common: they never gave up on earning their high school diplomas.
Graduating student and mother of seven, Robin Green, spoke at the ceremony. As she approached the podium, her four-year-old son, Dylan, shouted, “Mommy!” She began her speech with, “Hi baby, I love you,” before going on to speak about grace. “For me, grace means a second chance,” she said. “A second chance at a better education, a better career, to be a better wife and mother to my seven kids…Grace takes strength to root yourself in it. Grace has given us all strength to overcome obstacles.”
35th District Assemblywoman Jasmeet Bains, spoke about the importance of becoming a leader. Bains, who said she did not have a prepared speech and instead spoke from the heart, told the graduates that they can become leaders without an official title. She encouraged them to “find a problem in your community. Throw yourself into being that solution to that problem.”
FIELD President and CEO David Villarino asked her to share the story of her first encounter with Cesar Chavez when Chavez visited Bains’ elementary school in Delano in the early 1990s. Chavez asked the students what they wanted to be when they grew up. When Bains said she wanted to become an astronaut, Chavez replied that was nice, but that there was a great need for doctors so that Delano and the surrounding communities could have more access to healthcare. Bains said she recalled Chavez’ encouragement during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Villarino told the graduates that the vision of FIELD and of Chavez was to attack poverty and build wealth. “What we’re here doing today is celebrating your capacity to own and operate your own businesses,” he said. “That will bring assets. That will bring wealth