Mel Hodges was really excited to graduate from Merced College on Friday night.
"It's a major step," said the retired Air Force chief of student administration for the 4017th Combat Crew Training Squadron.
Hodges, who came back to school after traveling the world with the military, had something else to celebrate on Friday, too. His birthday. He turned 62 the day he graduated from Merced College with an associate degree in human services.
"It's kind of ironic," he said, laughing. "How can I forget this day?"
Merced College graduated 574 students during its 49th commencement Friday night at Don Odishoo Field, according to school officials.
The college also gave 899 awards to the 574 graduates who received an associate of arts or science degree, and the 122 who received certificates of achievement, said Robin Shepard, Merced College spokesman.
Five of those students also were recognized with Superintendent's Honors for graduating with a 4.0 grade-point average.
Interim President Ben Duran gave the commencement speech, titled "A Journey Worth Taking."
Dominique Corrales Navarrette was the student speaker at the ceremony.
Originally from Cleveland, Hodges came to live in Atwater in 1981 when he was assigned to Castle Air Force Base. He retired in 1989 and went to work for the state as a veterans employment representative in Modesto for 12 years.
But school was always beckoning him.
"I had nothing to lose by going back to school," he said. It was difficult traveling the globe and trying to fit in an education at the same time, he said.
He said he found attending classes "enjoyable" and challenging because he usually found he was older than the instructor and his classmates.
If the right job comes along, he said, dealing with human services or working with people who need help, he would consider coming out of retirement.
Betsy Olvera, another Merced College graduate, celebrated with her family and relatives Friday. It was a special celebration because Olvera is the first person in her family to graduate from college.
Skipping college was never an option, the 20-year-old said.
"I've always had it in my head, 'you're going to go,' " said Olvera, who majored in business. She plans to transfer to California State University, Stanislaus, to major in international business and hopes to work for a large company.
"I want to travel, like everybody else," she said, smiling.
Going to college will help her give back to her parents, who told her they wanted her to go to college and would help her in any way possible.
"I want to give them better stuff, give my parents more money," she said. "I want to make them proud of me."
Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.