Verdugo Fire Academy

Graduate John Kernell, right, receives his certificate from Sam DiGiovanna during Verdugo Fire Academy's graduation ceremony, which took place at Glendale Community College. (Cheryl A. Guerrero/Staff Photographer / January 12, 2013)

Roderick Hutchinson knows what it means to sacrifice.

Hutchinson, a student at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, was faced with an unimaginable decision following the death of his sister in September. Her funeral was scheduled on a mandatory training day at the academy, and attending would have made Hutchinson ineligible to complete the program.

“It took every fiber of my being not to throw everything down and hop on a plane and never look back on this year,” he said. “But I knew that this is exactly where my sister wanted me to be, and that I had made the right decision.”

Hutchinson was one of 38 cadets who graduated from the Verdugo Fire Academy Class XV during a ceremony Saturday at Glendale Community College. The year-long program is a partnership between the college and the Glendale Fire Department, and completing it leads to certification as a firefighter.

Students in the program must complete nearly 1,000 hours of intense academic, mental and physical training. But according to the academy's chief coordinator, Sam DiGiovanna, the toughest part has yet to come.

“The easy part is over,” he said.

After graduation, students must work as a cadet or a reserve with a fire department for a year before they can apply for a job. Around 60% to 70% of the graduating cadets find jobs with fire departments, while others go on to work at private fire agencies or forest services.

The program aims to keep the graduating cadets local, DiGiovanna said.

“We have cadets in Glendale, Pasadena and Burbank,” he said. “They come to the academy through the community college, and we put them right back into the community.”

During the ceremony, students shared stories of triumph with an audience full of family members and friends.

Monica Travens said she had always dreamed of following in her father's footsteps to become a firefighter. She worked full time four days a week in Ventura County, while spending the rest of the week in Glendale training with the academy.

“Through this academy, I've learned one of life's most important values — perseverance,” she said.

Glendale City Manager Scott Ochoa applauded the graduating cadets for their dedication to public service.

“At the end of the day, it's about serving someone other than yourself,” he said. “It is an amazing and noble call, and it's something that we should be very proud of.