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Commencement Brings Family Together

Thursday, May 16, 2024


St. Louis Community College will celebrate commencement Sunday, May 19, at Chaifetz Arena on the campus of Saint Louis University, marking both small and monumental accomplishments for graduating students. There are as many stories as there are graduates, and with this special series, we celebrate all of our 2024 graduates with stories about four students who demonstrate in their own way what it takes to earn a degree. A new story will publish each day the week of May 14-17, leading up to STLCC's commencement ceremony. This is the third story in the series.

Lia Reategui won’t have to charge her phone quite as often this week.

That’s because instead of talking on the phone to each of her five siblings, as she does each and every day, many of them will be here in St. Louis to see her walk across the stage at the 2024 STLCC commencement ceremony on May 19. Several family members will be coming from Reategui’s home country of Peru, with others coming from North Carolina—all visiting Missouri for the first time.

 “I feel it’s important for family to stay together,” she said. “When my parents passed away, I started calling my sisters and brothers every single day. Even if it’s just five minutes asking ‘how are you, are you okay?’ In many cases, it doesn’t need to be longer than that. You always have time for that.”

But Reategui’s family isn’t traveling thousands of miles just to see her—they’re also coming to see her daughter, Camila Gonzalez, graduate. The two will cross the stage together with matching degrees at Chaifetz Arena.

“I never imagined I’d have classes with her,” Reategui said. “Mother and daughter don’t usually have classes together. It even surprised our professor.”

The professor in that particular case was Michael Swoboda, who certainly had an impression left on him by the mother-daughter combo. Especially since Gonzalez’s official first name on the classroom roster is also Lia, identical to her mother’s first name.

“The Lia duo,” Swoboda called them. “We’re thrilled that this dynamic pair has graced our campus for the past few years.”

Earning their degrees in graphic communications

Both Reategui and Gonzalez will be honored at commencement for their associate in applied science degrees in graphic communications, which they completed in December. For Gonzalez, it’s her second degree from STLCC, earning an associate in arts degree in 2020.

“We’re both very creative, but we have different ways of showing our creativity,” Gonzalez said. “She’s good at drawing with her hand, and I’m good at doing art on the computer.”

Gonzalez said it was her interest in fanfiction that spurred her interest in getting her degree.

“I’ve always liked writing stories and I’ve always imagined what my characters and background would be like, so by taking graphic communications I can take that to the next step,” Gonzalez said. “Plus, I’ve always been an artistically creative person.”

Both graduates primarily took classes at the Meramec campus, and both served the College as student workers—Reategui, who will soon complete her 10th year working in media circulation with the IT department, and Gonzalez who worked in the bookstore.

When sitting together in class, they would help each other.

“There are some things that my mother never understands, so I have to help her,” Gonzalez said.

“This is true,” Reategui said. “But I’m 54, and everything is different and new for me. Everything is different—even the math is different than how I learned it growing up. I’m so happy she’s with me and helps me.”

Finding the way to STLCC

So many things were new for Reategui when she arrived to the United States from Peru in 1998, working for 13 years in housekeeping in Maryland, and then a few more years in Florida before making it to St. Louis in July 2014.

“I’m so proud to do this at my age,” she said. “It took me longer because I was either working or being a mother and wife; I never had full time for my studies. But I am ready now and so happy! It’s very emotional for me because I never imagined studying with my daughter.”

One potential stumbling block in Reategui’s path to a degree was overcoming breast cancer in 2010. 

“It did not break me,” she said. “On the contrary, it made me stronger and I can now say that I am a cancer survivor. If I could overcome it, others can too!”

For her, family is the most important thing, stating that when her mother was alive, they would talk on the phone seven times per day. Now, along with her supportive husband, David, they are hosting nearly a dozen out-of-town family members at their house, so they can all experience commencement together.

“I’m happy the family will be here for graduation,” Gonzalez said. “But it’s more about being together as one big happy family.”

“Graduating is a dream come true,” Reategui said. “I came to this country in 1998 and I always said I needed a degree—I didn’t know what I’d study, but I knew I needed a degree. And so many people helped me with my education along the way.”

Help along the way

Lisa Wilkinson, MA, professor of English, had both students in her classroom over the years, but particularly remembers having Reagegui in her first level of ESL-English 050 class.

“Lia is love personified,” Wilkinson said. “She is wise and kind. I remember how impressed I was with her final memoir project as she had overcome so much in her life, but she still had an amazingly positive attitude in class and in every interaction with everyone.”

“She (Wilkinson) helped not only me, but everybody,” Reategui said. “So I thank God I had her as a teacher for three semesters.”

Reategui also enlisted the help of the academic success and tutoring department for many of her classes, knowing she could always find one-on-one help there. She said when she talks to students on campus, she always encourages them to visit the tutoring department—especially international students. But even in the classroom, she could find the assistance she needed to succeed.

“My professors would say ‘okay, Lia, let’s do this step-by-step,’” Reategui said. “The professors stay and work with the students—not just me—everybody.”

Swoboda, who had both students in several of his classes explained that despite their relation to each other, both Reategui and Gonzalez have unique characteristics.

“Lia (Reategui), the mother, effortlessly sets the standard for positivity and interpersonal connections, greeting everyone with a spirited ‘good morning,’ whether they’re just five feet away or a distant 500,” Swoboda said. “Camila (Gonzalez), the daughter, radiates and unmatched determination, tirelessly pursuing her degree with heroic dedication.”

Commencement and beyond

After earning her second associate degree with STLCC, Gonzalez plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from Webster University. Both she and her mother wish to finding careers in the graphic communications field.

“I think my time here at Meramec helped me understand and learn about graphic communications and helped me learn what kind of future I want to have,” Gonzalez said.

“I think when young people finish high school, they need to first come to college before going to university,” Reategui said. “Because learning is a hard job, and the College helps you learn.”

This year, exactly one week after Mother’s Day, Reategui and Gonzalez will take a short walk across the stage at Chaifetz Arena to celebrate their matching degrees. But both will know the path to get there was far longer than the journey across the stage.

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