Commencement student speaker Charity Oetgen smiles after receiving her diploma during Laguna College of Art and Design's class of 2014 graduation ceremony in Laguna Beach on Monday. Oetgen is a co-founder of Artists Inspiring Raindrops, a group that helps nonprofits raise funds by selling donated art. (KEVIN CHANG, Coastline Pilot / May 19, 2014)

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Laguna College of Art + Design resounded with cheers and applause long after the graduation caps had been tossed and caught by their gleeful owners.

At 89 students, the graduating class — including bachelor's and master's degree candidates — was the largest in its history.

"It was wonderful," LCAD President Jonathan Burke said a day after Monday's hour-long ceremony. "It shows that we are on a trend of success and that enrollment is steadily growing. We are managing that growth, doing very well with retention and our graduating students are not just technically proficient, but have great concepts and are prepared to meet the rigors of the next chapter of their lives."

In his commencement speech, Bob Hurley, founder of Costa Mesa-based clothing company Hurley, complimented the school's efforts to ensure that graduates are industry ready.

"To you graduating students, man, you're incredibly lucky," the Newport Beach resident said. "This place is a stunning thing that sits here in Laguna Beach. ... And the world is also very fortunate because every time an LCADian — that's what we're going to call you guys now — leaves here and goes out into the world, the world of art and design becomes that much better."

Hurley, who was surprised when he was given the 2014 Innovation and Creativity Award during the ceremony, said of the school: "It's better than Disneyland."

A billowing white tent, set up in the parking area next to Nina's Park on the main campus, was filled to capacity with students' friends and family members, whose hands occasionally shot up to capture photographs and videos. Many attendees also stood off to the side and behind the seating area, clutching colorful bouquets, leis and gift bags.

Charity Oetgen, co-founder of Artists Inspiring Raindrops, a group that helps nonprofits raise funds by selling donated art, was tapped as the student commencement speaker. Her classmates dealt with the stress of senior year by taking turns for food runs, playing Jenga and even organizing ping-pong tournaments, she recounted.

"I will never forget my first class at LCAD," said Oetgen, who graduated summa cum laude. "I walked into class and my instructor, Carolin Peters, was barefoot and hippie, like me. I was so excited that she was teaching barefoot I even left to call my roommate, Hannah Banana, and told her that this school was the perfect fit for us. I later found out that she was only barefoot because she had broken her sandal that morning. But I still feel like LCAD was the perfect choice."


Degree Conferral

The graduation, which began at 4 p.m. and was followed by a reception, also included the conferral of an honorary doctorate in fine art to Justin Thavirat.

The 39-year-old Laguna Beach resident is one of the original artists of Blizzard Entertainment's "World of Warcraft." His contributions to the gaming industry encouraged Sandy Appleoff, LCAD's chairwoman of game art, to bring him on board.

Since 2008, Thavirat has served as a senior advisory board member at the college, helping develop the game art major, offering advice on its curriculum, reviewing student work, and more. With only an associate's degree in fine art, he has worked at Blizzard for nearly two decades, and teared up while thanking his family.

In an interview before the ceremony, Thavirat said that video games, namely his Atari 2600, feature prominently in his early memories.

"I used to go to a Catholic school," he said. "I would go to bed in my school uniform so I could wake up the next day, already ready, and play for a few minutes. I was a nerdy little kid and all I thought about was playing and drawing characters for video games."

After completing high school, though, Thavirat quickly realized that none of the universities he had applied to offered a major that interested him. He said that experience influences how he shapes coursework at LCAD.

"While I feel fortunate to have the chance to do my small part in helping the school, all of you have done and given me so much more over the years," he said at the podium. "You've helped me understand that the only thing that truly compares to creating great art is helping others to create great art."


'A fun positive spirit'