When Mario Rocha received his GED, he wore his graduation robes over an orange prison jumpsuit. Now, people ask him to speak at commencement ceremonies.
Saturday, Rocha, 31, served as the keynote speaker at a graduation ceremony for 36 GED recipients from the Fort Collins area. These are the types of students who, as the result of personal adversity, were unable to receive their high school diploma.
And if anyone knows anything about overcoming adversity, itâ€™s Rocha; he spent 10 years in prison for a crime that he did not commit.
On Feb. 16, 1996, Mario Rocha attended a party in the backyard of a house in Highland Park, Calif. A fight erupted during the party, and a young man trying to break it up was killed.
One week later, the LAPD stormed into Rochaâ€™s home, and he was taken to Central Juvenile Hall. He had been accused of murder.
Mario Rocha was only 16 years old. While there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, he was convicted of the murder and sentenced to 35 years-to-life in prison.
It was while in juvenile hall that Rocha took part in InsideOUT, a writers program that was co-founded by Duane Noriyuki, an adjunct CSU professor who was a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times at the time.
â€œThe premise of the program was for writers of all genres to volunteer to go into Central and teach writing as a tool for self-discovery,â€ Noriyuki said.
â€œDuane (Noriyuki) looked at writing as a form of faith,â€ Rocha said. â€œIt was through writing that, even though I was in prison, I was freer than I had ever been in my life.â€
The road to Rochaâ€™s freedom was a long one. Rocha petitioned for release, but a judge took a year and a half before deciding to deny it. This case was taken to a state appeals court, but was then rejected 10 months later. Meanwhile, Rocha suffered two prison stabbings.
â€œWhat was amazing was that Mario was the one who kept everyone hopeful,â€ Noriyuki said. â€œHe told everyone that things would work out and to not be discouraged. Every letter that he wrote was about writing, surviving and keeping faith.â€
The lawyers appealed once more, and finally found success. In August 2006, Rocha ended his 10-year-long nightmare.
Now, he is attending George Washington University in Washington D.C.
Rocha intends to major in interdisciplinary studies, mainly focusing on social media and the state. He currently edits, directs and writes videos, trying to give people a voice who didnâ€™t have one before.
Some of the students who Rocha spoke to on Saturday attended 2Hearts Academy, a dropout retrieval program founded by Wendy Cohen.
Cohen started the program after a man posing as a police officer murdered her daughter, Lacy Miller, in 2003. The program aims to reduce violent crime through education.
â€œEverything I do, I do for Lacy,â€ Cohen said.
Cohen organized the graduation ceremony to give GED students the same experience of receiving their diploma as most other graduates.
â€œThe ceremony was about making the studentsâ€™ dreams come true,â€ Cohen said.
Upon moving to Fort Collins, Duane Noriyuki was attracted to volunteering for the program, which is currently in danger of being shut down due to funding issues.
â€œI wanted to continue working with young people,â€ Noriyuki said. â€œItâ€™s often the case that the ones who need the most help receive the least.â€
Noriyuki showed his students at 2Hearts Academy â€œMarioâ€™s Story.â€ Alissa Garcia, 17, knew immediately that Mario Rocha was the person who she wanted to speak at her graduation.
The students at this graduation were all former high school dropouts, finally receiving their GEDs.
â€œThese students have struggled with adversity throughout their lives. Their GEDs reflect great determination and promise,â€ Noriyuki said of the graduates.
Donations to 2Hearts4Lacy can be made at http://www.2hearts4lacy.org.
Staff writer Allison Sylte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.