MORAGA -- Lumped in with 630 other St. Mary's College graduates, it could have been easy to miss Feke Lauti on Saturday.

Dressed in the same black cap and gown as everyone else who crossed the stage, the 27-year-old Oakland native was just a face in a crowd. But he'll take that crowd over the one he was in a decade ago.

For Lauti, the bachelor's degree he received Saturday was a triumph over the tough streets of East Oakland where he grew up. He and two of his brothers are the first members of their family to graduate from college.

"You can easily slip, growing up in an area like this," he said. "I felt like I was this golden child who made it. I don't ever want to go back.

"I've gone on to become the man I always wanted to be."

Lauti is one of a growing number of first-generation graduates that St. Mary's and other schools covet. About 40 percent of this year's freshmen at St. Mary's were the first in their families to attend college, compared with about one-third the previous two years.

In Lauti's case, his father left his native Tonga to attend college in Hawaii, but dropped out to move to Oakland with his wife. Like his brothers, Lauti believed it was important to take on the life his father had given up.

"He didn't get the opportunity to finish," said Lauti, a self-assured communications major who hopes to attend graduate school and go into broadcasting. "We all looked at it as the sacrifice had already been made."

Lauti wasn't the only graduate to overcome obstacles at St. Mary's, where at least a quarter of the student body comes from the lowest income brackets.

Antioch native Kim Yambao, 24, recalled giving birth to her son about a month after her first semester at St. Mary's ended. On Saturday, she received her bachelor's degree in nursing.

"It was really a hard process for me," she said. "Probably the hardest experience I've gone through."

Saturday was all about celebration, however. Even as the graduates' names echoed across the small campus, friends and relatives were grilling steaks, burgers and sausages and piling caseloads of beer into coolers on lawns around the school.

Brother Ron Gallagher, St. Mary's president, outlined several reasons for graduates to be proud, some relating to academics and some not.

"You have made a habit of rushing the basketball court when you beat Gonzaga on national television," he said, bringing cheers from the crowd of thousands.

Air horns greeted several graduates, as did scattered signs. A sign for class president Mark Gilson read, "Graduate the Gilson," a reference to a series of "Stump the Gilson" videos in which he answered school-related trivia questions.

Relatives said they were optimistic about the graduates' job prospects.

"It's a terrific job market out there," said Sacramento resident Mike Flanagan as he filed into the school stadium to watch his daughter graduate. "Unlimited opportunities for young people."

Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Reach him at 925-943-8246 or mkrupnick@cctimes.com.