Grossmont, Cuyamaca colleges to highlight student resilience and success at commencement ceremonies

June 01, 2023 at 2:00 PM

Grossmont College student ShannaRai Diaz and Cuyamaca College student Benjamin Hart
Grossmont and Cuyamaca Students receive praise for their resilience and success

EL CAJON – Resilience, determination, and vision characterize this year’s graduating classes at Grossmont and Cuyamaca colleges, and their commencement ceremonies in early June will highlight inspiring stories from students who overcame great odds and found paths to success.

This year, commencement at Grossmont College is scheduled for 9:30 am June 7 at the Viejas Arena at San Diego State University, 5500 Canyon Crest Drive in San Diego. Commencement at Cuyamaca College is scheduled for 5:30 pm June 8 in front of the college’s Communication Arts Building on campus, 900 Rancho San Diego Parkway in Rancho San Diego. The ceremonies will also be livestreamed at Grossmont College Commencement and Cuyamaca College Commencement.

A total of 2,250 students from both colleges are set to receive 5,146 degrees and certificates at the commencement ceremonies.

“The strength and courage of our students is nothing short of remarkable, said Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District Chancellor Lynn Neault. “So many have overcome significant obstacles to complete their degrees and certificates. I could not be more proud of how much they have accomplished.”

At each ceremony, a student commencement speaker selected by their college will give an address. Below are short profiles on these two standout students.

Grossmont College student speaker

ShannaRai Diaz is graduating from Grossmont College with an associate degree for transfer in Psychology, an associate degree in University Studies Social & Behavioral Science and a certificate of achievement in University Studies. San Diego State University, Cal State San Marcos, Cal State Fullerton, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and Cal State Long Beach have all accepted Diaz for admission this fall. Diaz aims to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

There was a time when her future seemed far from certain. Diaz started at Grossmont College back in 2001 as a nursing student, but an addiction to methamphetamines resulted in failed classes, dropping out of college, and jail time. “I continued a downward spiral for the next 20 years,” she said. During this time, she had several glimpses of what a life could be without drugs. She gave birth to two beautiful children, her son Dyami, and her daughter Alayja. She went to adult school where she received a license in phlebotomy. But after working as a phlebotomist at Alvarado Hospital Medical Center in San Diego, Diaz relapsed and ended up in state prison. Upon release, she went directly to a rehabilitation facility and stayed clean for a little more than two years. But then she relapsed again.

Her turning point came on October 18, 2018, when she found herself in the back of a police car and once again headed behind bars. “It was while I was incarcerated this time that I knew I needed to change my life,” she recalled. “I needed to find a purpose.” She found it when she signed up to take a class through the Pathways to Success program at Grossmont College. By spring 2021, Diaz was enrolled full time in classes, “ready and determined to create a new life for my children and myself,” she said. She made the President’s List, and she continued to make the President’s or Dean’s
lists every semester. Today, as Diaz heads for college and a career, she says her goal is to work with at-risk youth who have been affected by incarceration.

Cuyamaca College student speaker

Benjamin Hart is graduating from Cuyamaca College with an associate degree in Automotive Technology and as 
a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society, an international honor society that recognizes students for their academic achievement. He is notably the first Career Education student to be the commencement ceremony student speaker at Cuyamaca. Hart already runs his own auto shop, TBH Complete Auto Care, and he plans to one day attend U.C. San Diego and earn his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.

He has come a long way since his days as a freshman at Mission Bay High School in San Diego. It was then that he dropped out of school, and his mother sent him to live with his father in Texas. There, he completed his GED in 2003 – the same year he would have graduated from high school – scoring exceptionally high on standardized tests. But instead of moving on to college, Hart drifted from job to job, eventually moving back to San Diego at 21. By this time, he was drinking and using drugs every day, and before long he found himself homeless. He would remain that way for a decade. While he worked odd jobs driving food trucks, painting, cleaning, and making money where he could, Hart was still sleeping on the streets and spending all his money on his addictions. “I was comfortable where I was,” he said.

But Hart eventually realized that his alcoholism was killing him. “I couldn’t even get my shoes on,” he said. “It became a chore. I had to drink to be okay.” In 2012, Hart checked himself into a year-long detox program and became sober. He landed a job as a case manager for the Alpha Project, a nonprofit organization assisting unsheltered San Diegans, and then another job for an organization called PATH (People Assisting the Homeless). At PATH, Hart wanted to move up in the organization, but his supervisor told him he first needed a college degree. “I was so crushed,” Hart said. “I felt inadequate. It was horrible.”

He left and got a job working at an auto repair business in Normal Heights in San Diego. But it wasn’t long before he realized he wanted more. “I told my boss I want to work on the cars,” said Hart. A Cuyamaca College Automotive Program alumnus, his boss recommended that he attend Cuyamaca and pursue a degree. Hart immediately enrolled in the Automotive Technology program at Cuyamaca, where he relished the camaraderie in his classes, and being surrounded by bright and motivated classmates and instructors.

Today, he wants to share his story with others – people who may be facing challenges of their own and want to find another path in life. “I want to inspire people,” Hart said. “If I can do it, you can do it too.” The district’s two colleges, Grossmont College in El Cajon, and Cuyamaca College in Rancho San Diego, together serve about 25,000 students. For information about the college district, go to


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