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Long road for single dad to Clark College degree

Cuban immigrant, military veteran receives degree Thursday night during commencement ceremony

By , Columbian Education Reporter
Published: June 19, 2015, 12:00am
3 Photos
Alex Peraza, veteran, first-generation college student, single father and Cuban immigrant, overcame many barriers to cross the stage and collect his associate of arts degree during the Clark College commencement Thursday night. Peraza wanted to be a role model for his children, from left, Elsa Aaliyah, 6, Jacob, 8, and Preston, 4.
Alex Peraza, veteran, first-generation college student, single father and Cuban immigrant, overcame many barriers to cross the stage and collect his associate of arts degree during the Clark College commencement Thursday night. Peraza wanted to be a role model for his children, from left, Elsa Aaliyah, 6, Jacob, 8, and Preston, 4. Photo Gallery

79th Clark College Commencement

• Degrees and certificates conferred: About 2,000.

• Participating graduates: About 740.

• Participating Running Start graduates: 278.

• Participating GED/high school diploma recipients: 25.

Top 5 degrees/
certificates at Clark in 2014-15:

  1. Associate in Arts: 921.
  2. Associate in Applied Science Nursing: 125.
  3. Associate in Arts Business Administration DTA/MRP: 93.
  4. Associate in Arts Nursing WSUV-DTA: 55.
  5. Associate in Science Transfer Track 2: 41.

Award recipients Exceptional Faculty Awards

o Steven Clark, professor of biology.

o Alison Dolder, instructor of baking.

o Matthew Gallaher, instructor of English.

o Michiyo Okuhara, professor of Japanese.

Community College

President’s Award

o Kathleen Fockler.

RIDGEFIELD — About 740 students crossed the stage to collect their diplomas at the 79th Clark College commencement ceremony Thursday night at the Clark County Events Center at the Fairgrounds.

Sitting among the blue-gowned sea of graduates was Alex Peraza, who has earned a transfer associate’s degree and will begin classes at Washington State University Vancouver in August.

His is an American success story. He’s a first-generation college student and a Cuban immigrant. He’s a veteran who served 14 months in Iraq. He’s a single dad raising his three young children.

Peraza, 39, was born in Cuba and was 4 when his family left their homeland to seek opportunity. For two years, they lived with relatives in Spain. Finally, they were granted asylum in the U.S. as political refugees. First, they settled in Florida, where they had relatives. But his parents realized their four sons would have more opportunity in the Pacific Northwest, and they moved to Portland, and Peraza graduated from Jefferson High School.

He didn’t consider college. Instead, he joined the U.S. Army in the infantry in response to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“This is home. It was my time to help protect, regardless of the politics of it all,” Peraza said.

During his 14-month tour in Iraq, he was injured by an improvised explosive device and suffered injuries including a concussion. He was honorably discharged in 2008.

After he returned to civilian life, he drove a truck for a living.

When his youngest child, Preston, was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, Peraza decided to go back to school to make a better life for his kids, Jacob, 8; Elsa Aaliyah, 6 and Preston, 4.

While juggling a full-time class load and single fatherhood, he sought help at Clark College’s Veterans Resource Center. He has been encouraged by fellow veterans Bob Knight, Clark College president and Larry Smith, Vancouver city councilor.

79th Clark College Commencement

• Degrees and certificates conferred: About 2,000.

• Participating graduates: About 740.

• Participating Running Start graduates: 278.

• Participating GED/high school diploma recipients: 25.

Peraza has become a master juggler.

“You have to have that infantry mindset: Always be prepared,” he laughed. “Instead of carrying an infantry backpack, I carry diaper wipes, snacks for the kids, juice boxes.”

When the work got tough and he began doubting himself, he looked at a photo of his children on his smartphone.

“They are my rock. My love for them, my love for family is all I’ve got,” Peraza said. “That’s what fueled me to finish in a timely manner. That’s the dream. From day one, I had a picture in my mind of me walking across the stage in front of my kids to get my diploma.”

Thursday before graduation, Peraza gave each of his kids an Oswald the Penguin stuffed animal, the mascot of Clark College.

Earlier he had given them a tour of the Washington State University Vancouver campus and told them, “I’m not a penguin anymore. Now I’m going to be a cougar.”

Peraza took a new picture with his smartphone of his kids clutching their penguins — and the hope of going to college like their dad. Both Jacob and Elsa Aaliyah said they want to be police officers.

“It’s really about my kids. It’s about setting the bar,” he said.

In August, Peraza will begin classes at WSU Vancouver.

He had planned to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering, but that would take another four years of school, and he can’t afford it because his military educational benefits are running out. Instead, Peraza will spend the next two years earning his bachelor’s degree in public affairs with a focus on criminal justice with a goal toward becoming a civil servant.

“You need a college education to get ahead. Now I can pay it back to the community,” he said. “The moral of the story? I encourage other veterans, if you’re thinking about going back to school, do it.”

Former Seattle Seahawks running back Curt Warner, a Camas resident, was the keynote speaker. Warner grew up in a part of West Virginia where it was tough for boys to escape the fate of working in the coal mines.

“You don’t have to settle for mediocrity,” Warner told the graduates. “If people say you can’t succeed, you don’t have time to listen to that. Dedicate yourselves to your goals. Never give up. People who make goals get slapped down at least once. Everyone loses sometime. It’s how you handle the losing that makes you a winner.”

Top 5 degrees/ certificates at Clark in 2014-15:

  1. Associate in Arts: 921.
  2. Associate in Applied Science Nursing: 125.
  3. Associate in Arts Business Administration DTA/MRP: 93.
  4. Associate in Arts Nursing WSUV-DTA: 55.
  5. Associate in Science Transfer Track 2: 41.

Award recipients Exceptional Faculty Awards

o Steven Clark, professor of biology.

o Alison Dolder, instructor of baking.

o Matthew Gallaher, instructor of English.

o Michiyo Okuhara, professor of Japanese.

Community College

President's Award

o Kathleen Fockler.

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