Some of the biggest lessons that electrical engineer Donald Flowers II, learned at school happened outside the classroom. Discipline. Time management. Financial budgeting. Focus.

"You cannot give up," said the 34-year-old Flowers, one of several thousand ebullient San Jose State students celebrating their Saturday graduation in Spartan Stadium's bright morning sun.

"It takes sacrifice," he said. "At holidays, I'd be sitting around the table with my whole family, with my laptop open."

Flowers reflects the kind of success the university has made its mission: offering working students -- many of them older or immigrants and transfers from two-year campuses -- the intellectual rigor and credentials needed to lift themselves securely into the middle class.

As Silicon Valley's demographics and economy have evolved, so has SJSU. Its graduating class -- a multiethnic student body with a strong focus on engineering, math, computer science and business administration -- closely reflects the local community.

"We're proud of you," said university president Mohammad Qayoumi, an engineer who was born in Afghanistan.

"SJSU powers Silicon Valley," he told the giddy crowd. "And that power is in each and every one of you."

The university was once a quaint teacher training school with variety shows and picnics, where faculty members chided students for untidy clothes and one sorority pledged to always smile and "not to speak unless spoken to."

Now its graduates supply a huge and important workforce for the tech boom that had its start right outside the university's doorstep.

SJSU ranked as the eight best public universities in the western United States, according to a ranking system conducted by U.S. News. It eclipses many other schools for four key reasons: affordability, rise in graduation rates, job placement success, and graduates' average earnings.

Four decades ago, the first campus job fair was cozy enough to be held in the campus ballroom, with 12 participating employers. This year, more than 200 employers came to multiple job fairs to recruit students for internships and career positions.

Over time, it has shifted from a pure teaching college to a more industry-oriented college, relevant to Silicon Valley employers.

The student body has changed as well. SJSU students are older on average than past generations -- and, like Flowers, many are financially responsible for their own education. The average age of a California State University student rose from 22.9 years in the late 1960s to 24.6 years in the 1990s.

They increasingly come from homes without a tradition of higher education, or where English is not the primary language. Nine out of 10 students commute to classes, many holding down jobs. Some earn degrees as many as eight or 10 years after enrollment.

That was Flowers' story. Born in Stockton, he put his education on pause when he became a supervisor at United Parcel Service. He had a lot of responsibility, made good money and had a busy social life.

He decided to recommit to school and earned his associate degree in math, science and engineering at Foothill-DeAnza College.

But to succeed in the rigorous field of engineering at SJSU -- mastering classes that ranged from circuitry to calculus -- everything in his life needed to change. He took a job as a department manager at Cost Plus World Market that held less responsibility and more flexibility, but paid only half as much. He abandoned his social life. And he hit the books.

"School was the priority," he said. "I harnessed my focus."

Stefan Glenbocki, 25, a new graduate in industrial technology, applied the same focus.

"I'd go to work and class, then work and go home," said the San Jose native, who landed an equipment engineering tech position at Tesla, where he keeps car production running smoothly. "I worked. Always.

"I'm scrappy now, because of San Jose State," he said. "I had to work hard for my education; we all had to. Nothing was given to us. That's important in industry."

Kashmore Hamilton, 28, also logged 20 to 30 hours of work a week, in addition to holding volunteer jobs, while earning her master's degree in public health. She's the first in her family to get a graduate degree.

"There's a lot of balancing, a lot of sacrifice," she said. "I set a goal for myself and made sure I accomplished it."

Flowers took advantage of all that SJSU offered -- and more.

After a weekend to savor his achievement, he'll return to his new job as an electrical engineering technician at Applied Systems Engineering Inc. in Campbell.

"It's awesome," he said. "I'm stepping out of school and making the transition.

"If you want them, the opportunities are there."

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.