The compelling life stories of two valedictorians took center stage at Napa Valley College’s graduation ceremony Friday evening, where 991 degrees and certificates were awarded to 725 graduating students.
Rep. Mike Thompson, an NVC alumnus who enrolled at Napa Valley College on the GI Bill after returning from the Vietnam War, was the scheduled keynote speaker.
Thompson left Napa Valley College for a distinguished career in politics. For the valedictorians, American Canyon’s Jessica Bennett-Roberts and Monica Hurtado, the college served as an opportunity to reshape their lives and springboard them onto a new path.
Both young women entered NVC needing to shake off aspects of their earlier lives, and once they did, they discovered new versions of themselves.
For Bennett-Roberts, 27, her graduating with an associate’s degree in Social and Behavioral Sciences and a 3.87 GPA culminates a big turn her life took. A real “360,” according to her.
“I went from a straight-A student to a convicted felon,” said Bennett-Roberts. “Now, I’m a straight-A student again.”
Her childhood and adolescence was filled with the things that could derail anyone: a fractured family, drug abuse, alcoholism, beatings.
“I came from a home where there was abuse daily,” said Bennett-Roberts. “My stepfather was an alcoholic. He drank constantly, and it was like walking on eggshells. You never knew when he was going to crack.”
She spent time growing up in Vallejo with her father and in Sacramento with her mother after her parents split up when she was only a year old. Mom and dad both struggled with substance abuse, exposing her to a way of life she herself adopted.
Bennett-Roberts began using drugs in high school. Still, she managed to do well at Encina High School in Sacramento, graduating with honors. She got accepted to CSU-Sacramento.
But her own addiction to drugs and alcohol had already taken root, and she made it through only a year at Sac State before dropping out. She wandered the Bay Area, going wherever she could get drunk or stoned.
Her wayward life might have continued had she not gone to prison, she says. “That was when my life started to change.”
She was serving a five-year sentence at Valley State Prison when she found out she was pregnant.
Oftentimes, women who have babies in prison are forced to give them up. Bennett-Roberts was lucky. She managed to get accepted into a special program, the Community Prisoner Mother Program, which allowed her to keep her son, Jerome, while serving nearly all of her term.
After being paroled in 2012, she and her son went to live in American Canyon with her grandmother, City Councilmember Joan Bennett.
“If I didn’t have her support, who knows” how I would have turned out, she says.
Her grandmother encouraged her to give college another try and enroll at NVC.
She’s glad she did. Her academic success at NVC has put her in a position to transfer to a four-year university. She’s aiming for UC Berkeley, where she wants to study social work and eventually devote her career to working with those at risk of going down a path she knows all too well.
“I just want to help people who are where I once was,” said Bennett-Roberts, whose turnaround in life she also credits to her partner, Cameas Davis, “the love of my life” she met a year ago.
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As a social worker, she hopes to share her perspectives with individuals struggling to get their lives together and help them realize something she learned: “Character and integrity somehow sometime have to show up in your life, or your life means nothing.”
For Hurtado, who was born and raised in the Napa Valley, her time at NVC has also been a “transformative experience.”
“It was when I came here that my life completely changed,” said Hurtado. “It was a whole new start for me.”
The 20-year-old Mexican-American whose parents emigrated from Mexico also comes from a broken home.
For her, it wasn’t about overcoming drugs or alcohol, but other things that can plague teenagers: divorce, negativity, learning disability, no sense of self, low self-confidence.
By the time she graduated from Vintage of High School in 2012, she was on a path with which she wasn’t happy. She wanted to do more with herself, but didn’t really know how to change things.
Hurtado knew how to study and hit the books. But something was missing.
That something was identity. She needed to discover who she was as a person, and she found it while going to NVC.
She took advantage of a wealth of programs at the college, particularly the Puente Project, which helps disadvantaged Hispanic students receive individual guidance and counseling.
“It not only helped me on the education side but also personally,” said Hurtado, to “learn more about myself and be more confident.”
“The biggest thing was having someone who could see the potential in me that I couldn’t see myself,” she says.
Her participation in Puente, SSS TRiO and other programs got her involved in performing community service, which included helping conduct mental health outreach for Clinic Ole.
Like Bennett-Roberts, Hurtado will receive her AA in Social and Behavioral Sciences (GPA 3.95). She will transfer to UCLA this fall where she will pursue a bachelor of arts degree in Sociology with a minor in Education or Chicano/Chicana Studies.
Social work and education are possible paths she will pursue professionally.
She, too, wants to give back as part of her career.
“I know my purpose is to come back [to Napa] and be able to make the impact on others that was made on me,” said Hurtado.
As the first member of her family to attend a university, Hurtado wants to inspire her two younger sisters to strive for more.
She hopes she will be “a positive example for them,” and “show the way they can be successful” and demonstrate “what education can do to your personal self.”