‘I got to make my dad’s dream that he can see me graduate,’ SDSU hosts graduations in Mexicali, Tijuana

SDSU holds graduation ceremonies for graduates whose immediate family members cannot cross the border to attend ceremonies in the U.S.

Thursday, May 23, 2024
SDSU alumna Zoila Gonzalez smiles from the stage during her commencement ceremony.
“I remember looking at the love in my family’s eyes in this moment,” said Zoila Gonzalez, Master of Science in multicultural counseling and social justice education.

Sometimes they had to settle for a phone call. Busy with their studies, at times, Isabella Cervantes said they would go months without getting to see their father and step-mother. 

“I would call them and be like, ‘I’m so exhausted, I’m sorry. I can’t cross,’” said Cervantes.

It also meant that Cervantes’ father, who lives in Mexico and is unable to cross the border into the U.S., would not be able to watch his daughter cross the stage when they earned their bachelor of applied science in arts degree this past Spring. 

“It was a little heartbreaking and a little discouraging at some points knowing that one of my biggest supporters, which is my dad and my step-mom, could not be there physically to celebrate my achievement,” said Cervantes.

All that changed during a chance conversation between Cervantes and one of their professors, Emilio Ulloa, who also serves as San Diego State University’s associate chief diversity officer for HSI and regional affairs.

One of the organizers of the university’s transborder graduation in Tijuana, Ulloa shared that SDSU holds graduation ceremonies in both Mexicali and Tijuana for graduates whose immediate family members cannot cross the border to attend commencement ceremonies in the U.S.

Isabella Cervantes, Bachelor of Applied Arts & Sciences in psychology.Open the image full screen.
Isabella Cervantes, Bachelor of Applied Arts & Sciences in psychology.

“I got to make my dad’s dream that he can see me graduate,” said Cervantes, who participated in the Tijuana graduation. 

“It is an incredibly meaningful occasion that allows us to affirm the backgrounds of our students and their families,” said Ulloa. “Specifically, by creating this graduation celebration we are able to address the challenges faced by students whose families find it difficult or impossible to attend the traditional San Diego or Imperial Valley commencement ceremonies on campus.” 

Building Bridges 

First held in 2022 and known as the “Building Bridges” graduation, SDSU Imperial Valley’s Cross-Cultural Center hosted its “Building Bridges” commencement ceremony at Autonomous University of Baja California’s (UABC) Mexicali campus on May 17. A separate ceremony for San Diego-based students was held at UABC’s Tijuana campus on April 25.

While some higher education institutions in the U.S. have hosted binational commencement ceremonies on their campuses in recent years, SDSU organizers believe the initial 2022 ceremony was also the first-of-its-kind held in Mexico for graduates and their loved ones. 

“As a federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution with proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border, the ceremonies in both Tijuana and in Mexicali represent an institutional approach to serving our transborder and binational students' unique needs rooted in compassion and intentionality,” said Ulloa. “The graduation is a testament and a celebration of the resilience, determination, and cultural richness that define the transborder experience.”

Karla Valencia Samberino, SDSU Imperial Valley psychology graduate, was among the graduates who attended the special ceremony in Mexicali. Samberino moved to Brawley, California from Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico in 10th grade. There was an instant culture shock, said Valencia, as she dealt with the challenges of learning English, making new friends and adjusting to a new school environment.

Karla Valencia SamberinoOpen the image full screen.
“I feel immense pride and happiness to have gotten to this point,” Karla Valencia Samberino, bachelor of arts in psychology.

“During this challenging time of my life, I began reading a lot of personal growth and motivational books, as I tried to understand more of my own barriers and challenges,” said Valencia. 

She said it was eventually through her psychology classes at SDSU Imperial Valley that she became more patient and empathetic toward her own experiences as a transborder student. 

Valencia completed her psychology degree in December 2023 with honors and participated in the May 2024 Building Bridges graduation. She is now pursuing a master’s degree in Education with a concentration in counseling with restorative justice practice and trauma-informed Care at SDSU.

“I feel immense pride and happiness to have gotten to this point,” said Valencia. “SDSU Imperial Valley became my safe place to grow, discover and create meaningful connections.”

Adan Andrade ArellanoOpen the image full screen.
“To have a ceremony both in San Diego and Tijuana, it’s something that is special to a lot of people here. I know it’s special for me,” Adan Andrade Arellano, Bachelor of Applied Arts & Sciences in criminal justice.
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