Then high school freshman Cassandra Dimla sat in the audience of the University of Guam’s 2008 commencement to watch her older sister walk across the big stage.
During graduation, she noticed the valedictorian’s family sitting in reserved seats directly in front of her with their names on the back.
It was then she made the decision.
“I didn’t want to be valedictorian for the honor,” she said. “I just wanted those chairs for my family to sit on during graduation. I wanted those chairs reserved for them. I am who I am because of them.”
That sense of selflessness followed Dimla throughout her university career, all the way to Spring Commencement on May 24, where she, as the valedictorian for the Spring 2015 class, told the audience and fellow graduates that supporting one another leads to great success.
“Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family,” she said. “Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one.”
Dimla, a 22-year-old special education major from the UOG School of Education, said she always sought out opportunities to help others, including working for UOG’s writing center.
But her passion for teaching was most ablaze while volunteering for AmeriCorps from 2011 to 2013.
During the summer, she would lead students on hiking adventures around the island as part of camp activities, taking them from the highest of the island’s highs, Mount Lamlam, to lower watersheds to teach the children about nature and the environment.
“It was really interesting to learn and work with kids to see how their brains would react to the things they were experiencing,” Dimla said.
While enrolled at UOG, Dimla also worked with a pre-kindergarten student with autism. Spending time with student helped Dimla see a greater picture of what taking care of and teaching students with special needs entails.
“I really learned a lot from her and her family,” Dimla said. “I’m seeing how I can make a difference in such tiny ways. It pushes me to keep going in my efforts to make a difference in even just one student’s life.”
Losing yourself in the service of others was a principle that directed Dimla’s path, she said.
Throughout her time at UOG, working with students with disabilities “felt right every time,” making her decision to pursue special education an easy one and ready for an often times difficult profession.
“It’s a hard job,” she said. “You need a lot of patience. Every time I found myself with one of the kids, I would love it, and feel like I was at my best.”
Dimla’s professors at UOG made the job a little less difficult, she said, by going above and beyond her expectations to guide and advise her.
“They’re not the kind of professors to be there for me just in the classroom,” she said. “They’ve been my backbone these past two years. They’ve been supporting me through this, even down to getting this spot.”
Dimla’s gratitude extends to the entirety of the University of Guam, recognizing all the opportunities she was provided, including a four-year scholarship, and the connections that would help her in the future.
“By staying here I was given an advantage,” she said.
Ultimately, her family support system gave her the boost she needed to reach the place she’s at now, academically and personally.
“My parents have taught me that hard work will eventually get me where I want to be,” she said. “My accomplishments are a reflection of them.”
Dimla said she’s now just waiting on her teaching certification but has started filling out her paperwork to apply for a job at the Department of Education.
“I want to work for DOE and work with our kids on our island,” she said. “I want to make a difference in my community.”