[Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery from commencement.]

With the beach as their backdrop, Santa Barbara City College graduates filed into La Playa Stadium on Friday evening for their commencement ceremony.

The Class of 2013 was awarded 1,702 degrees and certificates, and 500 students attended the graduation, which was held at the stadium and presided over by new President Lori Gaskin for the first time.

“Let’s soak in this precious moment,” she said, telling everyone to take out their phones and take a picture that would forever remind them of that day.

Gaskin reminded the graduates and their families that SBCC shared the 2013 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence for its commitment to student success and robust transfer program.

“Ensure that the value of your education is passed on one generation to the next,” she told them.

Many of the graduates who received their degrees Friday are on their way to four-year universities or full-time jobs.

This year’s class ranges in age from 18 to 67, with an average age of 25. Communications and psychology are the most popular majors.

“To a person, every one of you graduates is inspiring, genuine and delightful,” Gaskin said.

The inspiring commencement speaker was graduating student Robert Gutierrez, who earned associate’s degrees in mathematics, physics and chemistry.

Gutierrez said he was nervous to accept the honor of being student speaker, but pushed past his fears, “because I have found that nothing in this life is worthwhile unless there is risk to achieve it.”

Noozhawk interns and SBCC graduates Cassidy Flynn, left, and Gabriella Slabiak take a moment from the pomp and circumstance to celebrate. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Noozhawk interns and SBCC graduates Cassidy Flynn, left, and Gabriella Slabiak take a moment from the pomp and circumstance to celebrate during Friday’s commencement. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Gutierrez’s parents migrated from Mexico to the Carpinteria area and worked long hours, leaving him without guidance or the motivation to put in an effort at school, he said. Poor decisions followed that led to a “first-class ticket” to Wasco State Prison and being in and out of jail for about seven years.

In 2008, he took his first big risk in life and enrolled at Santa Barbara City College. He said he discovered his goal to be a bioengineering research during an animal biology course by Blake Barron and has since been accepted to prestigious universities.

Gutierrez said he couldn’t have done it without SBCC’s Extended Opportunity Programs and Services, the Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement Program, his girlfriend and many professors who believed in him.

He challenged every graduate not to settle for an easy road, but to take risks and not fear failure. Everyone fails at one point, “but we must learn from our failures and have the courage to push on forward,” he said.

There’s a Spanish saying that, translated, is “he who seeks, will find.” Every time he was released from jail, Gutierrez said he tried a job and failed at it — but never gave up.

He said the most powerful lesson came from his prison cellmate.

“You know what kid? You are very intelligent, but you’re stupid,” Gutierrez recalls him saying. Gutierrez wouldn’t accept that at first, but said he came to value the man as a mentor, and the one who finally made him realize he was focusing his energy on the wrong things.

“I went from being a troubled youth to graduating with honors from Santa Barbara City College,” he said. “I went from being a nobody, perceived as weaker, to being your 2013 commencement speaker.”

He ended with his lesson of his own to everyone listening: It’s never too late.

“For the children in the audience whose parents didn’t go to college, it’s not too late,” he said, in Spanish and in English. “For those who were incarcerated or told you’d never amount to anything, it’s not too late.”

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.