The Liberty Union High School District biennially honors three graduates who have gone on to forge a successful career, using their high school experience as a launching pad for achievement.
The district established the Graduates of Distinction Program in 1999 and has honored Brentwood icons such as Rose Pierce, Bill Bristow and Hugh Henderson. This year, Carol Ligon, Bertha Ruiz and Lt. Cmdr. Octavia Ashburn join the list of Liberty graduates who have made their community proud. They will be honored during an awards luncheon on April 1, following a visit to the district’s three high schools.
For Ligon, a 1962 Liberty graduate, Liberty was the only school in the area at the time. Since in 1962 the population of Brentwood – far East County’s only official city – came to a grand total of only 3,000, Liberty was fully capable of handling high schoolers from Oakley, Brentwood, Knightsen and Byron.
Ligon, who recently moved back to Brentwood after retiring from her position as director of elementary curriculum and staff development of the Modesto City School District, expressed surprise when she heard she had been named a 2011 Graduate of Distinction inductee. She remembers high school as a rewarding experience that helped her prepare for her career in education. She served as student body secretary her senior year while taking part in activities such as cheerleading, dance, Pep Club, A Cappella Choir and Latin Club.
“High school helped prepare me for the future and shaped me into a well-rounded person,” Ligon said. “I had some outstanding teachers. They encouraged me to set high goals and to look at life as a series of opportunities. And they instilled in me that nothing was impossible. If you worked hard and stayed focused, you could accomplish anything.”
Ligon took those words of wisdom to heart and went on to Stanislaus State for undergrad studies, and University of the Pacific for her master’s degree and teaching credentials.
Over the course of her 32-year career in education, Ligon served as an English teacher, a librarian, vice principal and principal before serving out her last nine years in as a district director. In 2000, she published an article in the National Forum of Educational Administration and Supervision Journal, and last year she was honored by the California School Library Association as Administrator of the Year for her ongoing commitment to information literacy.
Ligon, who worked at Brentwood’s Delta Theater when she was a student at Liberty, went on to marry her high school sweetheart and has always kept fond memories of her time at Liberty. While it’s been 49 years since she graduated, it doesn’t feel that way to her.
“Since learning of the news that I was selected for this honor, I’ve been thinking about my high school days a lot, but it doesn’t feel that long ago,” Ligon said. “Life goes by so quickly, and I’m glad that I learned the value of seizing the moment when I was at Liberty. It’s helped shape my life, and I am truly honored to receive this prestigious award.”
Ruiz also feels honored to be selected, but unlike Ligon, her high school experience was more challenging. Ruiz was a shy student and reluctant to join school activities. As an English-as-second-language learner, she found herself struggling to keep up with schoolwork. But she was determined not to be handicapped by the language barrier, and ultimately found inspiration through her struggles.
“High school was hard for me,” Ruiz said. “I was trying to keep up, but it was difficult since my family spoke only Spanish at home – in school, it was only English. But it gave me this idea that I could help others who faced language problems, so I became a translator.”
A 1969 Liberty graduate, Ruiz decided to dedicate her time to the community and help translate for Spanish speakers so that they could fill out basic paperwork or get proper care from a doctor. She studied immigration work at San Francisco State in order to help people enter the country legally and pursue the American Dream. Today, she works as a case manager at East Bay Works, helping people with job training and job placement.
Her community-service efforts and dedication to the people of Brentwood have not gone unnoticed. She was selected as the Brentwood Chamber of Commerce Citizen of the Year and she’s been named Soroptmist Woman of Distinction and Woman of the Year.
Her other community-service accomplishments include work for the Brentwood Housing Task Force and Neighborhood Committee, the Liberty Union High School District Education Foundation and the Los Medanos College Foundation.
While she’s acquired a long resumé of community-service projects, Ruiz shies away from the praise. “Helping people is second nature to me. If people need help, I help them. I love people and I like to help. It’s my gift. It’s always been inside of me. People ask me how I can come into work smiling every day, and I tell them it’s easy. I love what I do. To me, it’s not work. It’s not about a paycheck. It’s about helping others, and to see others happy makes me happy.”
Ashburn is the youngest of the inductees. She graduated from Liberty in 1991 and currently serves as the associate director of admissions for recruiting for the United States Coast Guard. Ashburn earned the Captain Dorothy Stratton Award for Leadership for exhibiting a superior display of the Coast Guard’s core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty. She is also the first woman in the Coast Guard to received orders as an Officer-in-Charge of a Law Enforcement Detachment Team.
In high school, Ashburn represented Liberty on the varsity track team. She was also the band drum major, the student body historian and the yearbook editor. Her other activities included French Club and leadership.
The Graduates of Distinction Program recognizes graduates who have distinguished themselves through their accomplishments and contributions to their chosen profession. To be eligible for the honor, a graduate must be someone who demonstrates personal integrity, is a role model for current students, and graduated from the district more than 10 years ago. To learn more about the program, visit http://libertyunion.schoolwires.net.