College of the Redwoods


Cal Poly Humboldt

College Matters | Taking commencement to the families

This article was originally posted in the College Matters column of the Times-Standard.

Thursday, May 25, 2023 - 2:30pm

Bringing a regional commencement ceremony to Southern California for the families and friends of our graduates was essential, allowing students to celebrate this amazing accomplishment with important people in their lives.

Most Cal Poly Humboldt students aren’t from the North Coast. In fact, about 80% of them move here to go to school. When all goes well, they develop a real connection to the people and place, and they earn their degrees.

It’s one of many things that makes us different from nearly all of the other 22 campuses in the California State University system. Our region’s population just doesn’t have enough high school and community college graduates to fill an entire campus. Meanwhile, students from other areas are drawn here by our distinctive programs, the college town experience, and, to be totally honest, the chance to live and learn in an amazing natural environment.

Our location is a strength and one that Cal Poly Humboldt and the local community have embraced over many decades. It adds a vibrancy, and, because many students choose to stay here after they graduate, the area gains business leaders, educators, and others who make our region great.

All good stuff.

However, celebrating these graduates each year has become increasingly challenging. Not for us — for the families.

It’s expensive and time-consuming getting to Humboldt from most places in California, not to mention other states. Guests often have to take many days off work. Hotels and short-term rentals are in short supply and quite a bit pricier than you would expect. Adding to the challenge, many of our students, especially the nearly half who are the first in their families to earn a college degree, will want to have a large number of family and friends attend. We have always been reluctant to limit attendance in some way, as some universities do.

Often, families just make it work, but we know that many who want to attend simply aren’t able to.

So this year, we experimented with taking the show on the road, with our first-ever regional commencement ceremonies. The response was amazing.

We held the event at the Saban Theatre in the Los Angeles area, which is where fully one-quarter of Humboldt students come from. (OK, the event was in Beverly Hills, and I know what you’re thinking. But that’s where there was a centrally located theater that was the right size!)

As I said, there was an amazing response by both graduates who might not have participated otherwise and guests who wouldn’t have been able to make it to Humboldt. We had nearly 600 participants in our first regional ceremony, including faculty, staff, students, friends, and families in attendance; anticipate larger events in the future.

Also from Humboldt, there were a dozen faculty members and numerous members of the university administration, along with a small contingent of staff who made the whole event possible. The Alumni Speaker was Robin Smith, a proud alumna who is currently the chair of the Cal Poly Humboldt Foundation.

We all cheered and smiled. Many people cried. It was the same big emotion that you find at these important rites of passage. For me, I enjoyed an extra day seeing graduates walk across the stage and getting to shake their hands. I also enjoyed seeing in family members the relief, the pride, the hope, and the sense of accomplishment for their students.

These graduates will now represent just 7% of people across the world who can call themselves college graduates. It’s an important distinction and responsibility.

Afterward, we had a big reception for everyone, capping off a great send-off for these new graduates.

What did the graduates and families think of the whole thing?

• “I’m really glad Humboldt had a commencement down here. I would have had three people attend commencement in Arcata, and now I have nine.”  — Gabriel Sean Staitman (botany), says of his squad of superfans who were in attendance: his father, mother, grandmother, brother, sister, aunt, stepdad, father’s friend, and girlfriend.

Bryn Leetch, Gabriel’s aunt, also expressed her gratitude. “Having the ceremony here is so kind to the families who can’t get to Humboldt. I got to see Gabriel at his happiest and we are so proud of him. So thank you, Cal Poly Humboldt.”

• “I’m so excited there was a commencement offered here because we all live locally.” — Cathi Martinez, of her daughter Christine Polimana Leilani Martinez (Native American studies).

• “This was a very nice ceremony in a beautiful venue. It’s greatly appreciated that it was held here for those of us who could not make it to Arcata, so thank you, Humboldt, for helping us to honor our graduates today.” — Jerry Perez, who was in the audience to see Sade Perez (sociology) graduate.

This year’s Humboldt graduates are a cause for broad celebration, and I’m proud that even more people were able to join that celebration this year. The graduates represent our success, as both a university and as a broader community, and they are our way of sending hope out into the world.

Congratulations to the 2023 Cal Poly Humboldt graduates, we know you will make us proud! Be well.

Dr. Tom Jackson Jr. is the president of Cal Poly Humboldt.