SANTA MONICA -- Amid tight security, about 575 students graduated Tuesday from Santa Monica College, just days after a murderous rampage ended in a shootout at the campus library.
Before handing out diplomas, Santa Monica College President Chui Tsang called for a moment of silence for the victims, which included one of the school's longtime groundskeepers and his daughter, a student, as well as a woman who used to collect recyclables on campus.
"We'll try, from this exercise, to find strength in our sadness, and to turn our anger into action for positive changes in this world," Tsang said during the ceremony at Corsair Field stadium.
In his commencement address, University of Southern California President C.L. Max Nikias urged the graduates, who wore royal blue caps and gowns, to "fight on, always."
"We honor the memory of those who lost their lives so tragically by committing ourselves to building a better city and a better age in which our children are safe to grow, to discover, to love, and to reach their full potential," Nikias said.
Oliver Baker, 38, of Santa Monica, obtained a degree in broadcasting and production and said the violence should not mar the celebration of the graduates' accomplishments.
"Although there was a tragedy, I feel it's important that students recognize themselves, and let their families see that they've accomplished something," he said. "I think it's still important that we carry on."
Grief counselors have been on campus since Friday, when John Zawahri, 23, shot dead both his father, Samir, 55, and brother, Christopher, 24; torched their home and then carjacked a vehicle to take him about a mile to Santa Monica College.
He opened fire at random people along the way, fatally shooting
groundskeeper Carlos Franco, 68; his daughter, Marcela Dia Franco, 26; and Margarita Gomez, 68, who had regularly collected recyclables from trash cans around campus.
Police caught up with Zawahri at the school library, killing him.
Just before the ceremony on Tuesday, many of the graduates admitted they and members of their family felt somewhat apprehensive about returning to campus.
"I was kind of jittery about coming today," said Ebelia Martinez, 26, of Venice, who was grateful that she bought her cap and gown at the campus on Thursday, instead of on the day of the tragedy, which had been her original plan.
"I'm dedicating my graduation to those who unfortunately died this Friday," the behavioral science graduate added.
Edward Ordonez, 24, of West Covina, arrived at the ceremony surrounded by family. He also obtained a degree in behavioral science.
"It's a little unsettling to be here, but life goes on," he said. "There's a lot of police here, so I feel safe. It's kind of comforting."
Dell Tingler, 85, came to see her granddaughter get her diploma.
"There's a little apprehension, but I think we're better protected than (the shooting victims) were," she said. "You just have to be aware of everything."
Santa Monica College Police Sgt. Jere Romano said there was heavier police presence than normal at a graduation ceremony, to make the attendees felt secure.
"We have the entire Santa Monica College Police Department here, except for the overnight shift," he said. "Unfortunately, there's only 10 of us, but we also have eight Santa Monica city police officers that will be assisting us, and additional officers roving around the perimeter."
"Even though we, as a college community, are grieving because some of the people that we lost are people that we know, we've still got to remember that we have approximately 575 students graduating, and we have to celebrate their achievements."
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