Not even the bars of a prison cell could keep Ruben Pacheco from graduating from Santa Monica College (SMC).

Six years after the 27-year-old Los Angeles native started taking classes at SMC, he graduated with honors from the college with an associate degree in liberal arts during a ceremony Tuesday, June 12th.

For Pacheco, a Venice resident who attended both Hawthorne High School and Venice High, graduation from Santa Monica College was a “long time coming.”

His initial attendance at SMC in 2001 was interrupted by an arrest and conviction for a gang-related felony charge that year.

Pacheco, who said he had never previously been arrested and was not affiliated with gangs, was given a six-plus-year prison sentence, but was released after serving two years and nine months for good behavior and for serving with the Los Angeles County Fire Camp as part of a state correctional program.

Following his release, Pacheco made sure he returned to the education he began at SMC before his conviction and re-enrolled in the college in 2004.

Now, three years later, Pacheco, who majored in communication and broadcasting, says he is proud to see that his commitment to getting a degree from SMC has finally reached its culmination.

“All the hard work is beginning to pay off,” said Pacheco, expressing his sentiments prior to graduation. “It’s a sense of achievement — starting something and knowing you can finish it.”

Noting that he didn’t think he could “reap the benefits” of college, given his status as a convicted felon, Pacheco said he is appreciative of the opportunities and resources the school has provided him. He is also thankful for the support he has received from counselors and professors.

“I’m so grateful for having all the people by my side,” said Pacheco, who also currently works in the marketing and production department at LATV.

In deciding to go to college, Pacheco said he wanted to make family history, as no one on his father’s side of the family had previously graduated from college.

He also knew that getting a college degree is a necessary step for anyone who wants to succeed in “this fast-paced world.”

When choosing between potential schools, Pacheco said he picked SMC not only for convenience, with its close proximity to his home, but because of its recognized success as a top transfer institution.

His arrest and conviction put a halt to his college plans, but while he says his prison sentence was a painful time, it also proved to be a learning and growing experience for him.

“It was painful being away from my family and feeling so far away from home,” Pacheco said of his time in prison. “I dealt with what I had to. I learned to appreciate what I have a lot more.”

The experience helped him develop physically, mentally and spiritually, he said, and in many ways influenced the type of person he is today.

“It helped me because I’m not getting into trouble and I’m doing really good now,” he said.

An experience Pacheco credits as having a main influence on his life was his service as the leader of a forestry firefighting crew as part of a state correctional program. It was through the Los Angeles County Fire Camp that Pacheco said he learned about a work ethic, teamwork and how to be a leader.

“It’s a big responsibility to lead a fire crew,” he said.

Those values, Pacheco said, became instrumental in helping him achieve his goal of graduating from SMC, where he had “some of the greatest times in my life.”

Pacheco was not at SMC just to study but to be an active student. He served on the Associated Students board of directors and has a seat on the Santa Monica Human Relations Council.

The SMC graduate was also active with the Pico Neighborhood Student Association, helping to organize several community and youth-oriented events, and he has volunteered at the Pico Youth and Family Center since 2004.

Pacheco recently received the $1,000 Wilma and Clyde Stieb Memorial Scholarship Award.

As a graduate of SMC, Pacheco said he now plans to attend a four-year university such as California State University at Northridge or UCLA, to study TV and film for his career aspiration as a TV show producer.

For anyone coming from a similar challenging background as Pacheco, he says it is never too late to turn your life around and work toward achieving your dream.

“It’s not too late to make changes in your life that will benefit you, your family and the people around you,” Pacheco said. “As long as you believe it, you can achieve anything.”