For the 38 Liberty High School students who flipped their tassels to the opposite side of their graduation caps Thursday morning, that moment hadn't always been planned.
Somewhere along the way, they fell behind on high school credits. Whether they had babies, needed to work or simply slacked off, they found themselves facing the idea of never catching up.
And so, when they walked across a room and hugged Principal Robert Rivas on Thursday, it was a milestone larger than many imagined.
"Most of us thought that we would never graduate, but here we are," student speaker Jessie Morante told a cheering crowd of more than 300 friends and family members.
Perla Izaguirre, whose family brought her a giant Mickey Mouse balloon, summed up her feelings simply: "It feels really good. And I'm so relieved."
Due to weather forecasts of rain and possibly lightning, Thursday's ceremony was held indoors at Lincoln Tech, rather than the usual lawn at Hutchins Street Square. It was standing-room-only, but audience members didn't seem to mind, as they cheered and whistled when graduates received special recognition and scholarships.
"I'm so proud that all I could do was sit there and cry. I'm speechless," said Naomi Olivo, who watched her son receive multiple awards.
Her son, Serafin Kulp, is the eldest of five children. She became disabled in 2003 and has had multiple back surgeries, so Kulp took over many of the family duties.
He started as a freshman at Tokay High School. Then the family moved to Washington, Idaho and back to Lodi. Between caring for his siblings, helping pay the bills and the various moves, Kulp fell behind in credits.
So, two years ago, he transferred to Liberty High. Students can work at their own pace, meaning that if they get to work they can move through the curriculum quickly.
Kulp did so, actually amassing more credits than needed, and has also made plans for the future: He's entering the U.S. Marine Corps. in July and wants to become a weapons specialist. With that focus, and because he speaks and reads Japanese — along with Spanish and, of course, English — he'll likely be stationed in Okinawa, Japan.
Then he plans to come home and go into the law enforcement field.
That's the main goal of Liberty, said Rivas, the principal — to help students "become productive members of the community."
Rivas, who knows each student by name, encouraged the graduates to come back to update teachers on their lives and to inspire future classes.
"We can no longer be there to support you but in spirit we will always be there," he gold the graduates.