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It's been a 17-year educational journey for Maria Saldana

Saldana, who came from Mexico and enrolled herself in high school, receives an associate's degree from OCC.

May 25, 2011|By Britney Barnes, britney.barnes@latimes.com
(Scott Smeltzer )

Editor's note: This corrects what Maria Saldana did with her classes.

COSTA MESA — Maria Saldana cried when she applied for graduation — and after picking up her cap and gown — but the moment still wasn't real for her.

It wasn't until Tuesday night's graduation rehearsal, when she saw her named cleared to walk, that it sank in. After 17 years of taking classes, she would finally be finishing her associate's degree in child development from Orange Coast College.

And she cried again, this time, on the way home.

"I feel very proud of myself," Saldana, 44, said Wednesday afternoon in her Westside home. "I think I came a long way."

Saldana has juggled the roles of student, wife and mother of two — plus a full-time job — for nearly two decades. On Wednesday night, she added graduate to that list of accomplishments, joining more than 2,500 students at the OCC's 63rd annual commencement.

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Saldana struggled to take care of her family and find the money for classes and textbooks, all while still trying to fully grasp the English language.

She kept going to show her two sons the importance of education.

Daniel Saldana, 21, graduated from WyoTech and Richard Saldana, 20, is a sophomore at Cal State Fullerton.

"I feel like I got my point across," she said.

An immigrant's story

Saldana, then 12, came to Santa Ana from Mexico in 1980 with her father, mother, two sisters and eight brothers.

Her mother and father came from a town with no school. Her mother had no education. Her father could only read and write a little.

Saldana had a first-grade education and, like the rest of her family, didn't speak English. She wasn't allowed to go to school in the U.S.; she had to stay home and help her mother around the house.

The family enrolled her youngest brother in school, even though it was Saldana's dream to become a teacher.

When Saldana was 16, she enrolled herself in Santa Ana High School. She learned to read and write and, four years later, became her family's first high school graduate. Her father got out of the car on the way to graduation and walked home.

"It meant a lot to me, but I was very sad that my parents didn't value education," she said.

Her brother took her out to dinner after the ceremony.

"That was it," she said. "Nobody said anything or did anything."

'She has it in her'

Saldana's parents remained resolute.

"They said college is not for women," she recalled.

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