SJR State honors graduates


St. Johns River State College celebrated its Fall Commencement on December 17, honoring the students who are candidates to earn bachelor's degrees, associate’s degrees or college credit certificates for the 2015 summer and fall terms. More than 150 students from the Palatka, St. Augustine and Orange Park campuses participated in the ceremony held at the Thrasher-Horne Center located on the Orange Park campus.

The ceremony opened with a unique performance by a special guest of SJR State President Joe Pickens. The Rev. Timothy Robinson, Jr., a beloved music teacher and basketball coach from Crescent City, performed The National Anthem on saxophone. Pickens, who described the 78-year-old as an icon, mentor and friend, was among the many students Robinson taught and coached during a career that spanned decades within Crescent City schools.

Pickens then introduced the ceremony's speaker, Edward Jennings, Jr., a former state legislator and southeast regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Pickens and Jennings served together in the Florida House of Representatives from 2000 to 2006.

Jennings began his speech by paying homage to the parents of the graduates, referencing the sacrifices many parents make for their children to attend college. Jennings also stressed the importance of developing and maintaining personal relationships amid an age of social media that is creating an impersonal society. He challenged the graduates to reach out to their fellow graduates, make friends and stay in touch. "Everything that we are is about relationships," Jennings said. "We can overcome all things, not only through what the Good Book says... but through relationships one at a time," he said.

"Set your sights on the stars. Decide you want to be something new, and different, and special," he said in closing, advising the graduates to live so that future generations of their families will live differently.

graduationDuring the ceremony, Gerald Cahalane, 33, of Putnam County, was presented with the Valedictorian Award. The award is given based on grade point average, difficulty of courses and involvement in extracurricular activities. A Palatka resident since 2011, the former restaurant manager also taught English as a second language in Indonesia before moving to Florida. Recognizing the doors that a four-year degree can open, Cahalane enrolled at SJR State and earned his Bachelor's Degree in Organizational Management. He plans to use his new credentials to pursue several new career options, including sports management.

Thursday's commencement represented generations of dreams realized and stories of personal growth, perseverance and second chances - success stories for more than 650 graduates. For some, their collegiate journey was completed in months; for others, after years of determination and sacrifices. The audience cheered on a diverse class of graduates ranging in age from 18 to 50 and beyond, a class sharing a desire to pursue careers aimed at better serving their communities.

graduationAmong the graduates was Paula Stevens. Stevens received her Associate in Science degree in Nursing. After serving in the United States Army for 25 years, the 48-year-old mother of two said she is excited to begin her career as a nurse.

With her children now grown, Stevens said, "It was time for me to accomplish my dream," one she has desired since high school after witnessing a roadside accident that prompted her to take immediate action and rush an injured child to the hospital. "When the nurse took the child from my arms, I thought, I want to do what she's doing. I want to help people," she said. "I fell in love with the (nursing) profession that day."

That fervor has followed Stevens throughout the program. Stevens' instructors awarded her the Florence Nightingale Award during a pinning ceremony following Thursday's commencement. The award is given to a student who has demonstrated compassion toward others, leadership in class and devotion to clients and their families throughout the two-year program.

Stevens plans to pursue her bachelor's degree in nursing while beginning her new career in health care.

Also among the graduates was Matthew Carter, who earned his Bachelor's Degree in Organizational Management. The 23-year-old first began attending SJR State as a dual enrollment student and continued his education until completing his four-year degree. "The journey has been difficult, but rewarding," said Carter, who worked full time while attending class.

Carter's passion for helping others is fueled by his current job with the county's Juvenile Crime Prevention Office, coordinating the Sheriff's Work Ethic And Training (SWEAT) program. "The greatest reward is the benefit of knowing that I have an active role in redirecting the future of individuals in preventing them from entering into the juvenile justice system," he said.

Carter plans to continue his education and expand his role of working with at-risk youths by ultimately earning a law degree. As an attorney, Carter said he can help implement diversion programs in other counties, which will provide an invaluable opportunity for youths across the state of Florida.

"I am thankful for the difficulties I have faced through my line of work and in my area of study," Carter said. "It has caused me to grow, and I am now able to pursue a career that is intrinsically rewarding and provides a benefit to my community."

Kaleigh Tibbs' calling to help others led her to SJR State's latest allied health program. The 24-year-old is one of two females to complete the College's first paramedic class. "I wanted something to fulfill that passion I have to help others," she said. "Initially, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life. I thought maybe signing up for the police academy might be the way to go, but this is it," she said with certainty. "I love it."

Tibbs initially started taking classes at SJR State when she was a junior in high school, where she graduated sixth in her class. Those dual-enrollment classes eventually led to her earning an Associate in Arts degree at SJR State prior to returning to the College to pursue paramedic studies. "I love the school and teachers," Tibbs said. "And we had such a tight-knit class and a solid instructor."

Appreciative of the instruction and high volume of "ride time" they received, Tibbs and her classmates arranged to present their instructor, Richard Webb, with a plaque. "We wanted to celebrate the first graduating class and all of Mr. Webb's hard work," Tibbs explained.

Eighteen-year-old Averi Jones was awarded her Associate in Arts degree with highest honor. She plans to transfer to the University of North Florida, where she will begin studies in anthropology and sociology as a junior. Jones credits her accelerated progress to a combination of home schooling and dual enrollment.

While some may call Jones an overachiever, she considers serving as the president of three clubs as a way to provide meaningful service to others along her academic journey.

"When I first started at SJR State, I really wanted to get involved and become part of something bigger than myself and, honestly, help others," she said. "I love the College; I really do... I love interacting with all the students and helping them out. I love seeing all the different aspects of the College and getting involved in everything. And even though I'm not a part of every club, I am a part of every club," she said, thanks to her heavy involvement with the campus' Student Government Association.

Also among the graduates was Chris Rohrer. Rohrer, 47, was forced to rethink his career after sustaining injuries as a military police officer. "I was no longer able to run after people and do things like that," he explained. "I figured that pursuing a bachelor's degree in organizational management information systems would be a good fit, since I enjoyed helping people out with computers while in the military."

The father of four said that as a student, time management was his biggest challenge until he mastered how to set aside dedicated time for school work. "There were times when I was up at 3:00 in the morning, studying for a test or doing homework, when everyone else was asleep," Rohrer said, advising other non-traditional students, "If the family's at home, spend as much time as you can with them. Then, give your kids and significant other a kiss goodnight and dedicate time after that, if need be, to school work." And perhaps a little family competition can help, too. Rohrer has been enjoying a GPA contest with his daughter, who is attending Ridgeview High School. "It's pretty competitive," he said. "And I'm winning right now."

sallymyers anneeller

A portion of the ceremony was dedicated to acknowledging retiring faculty. SJR State's Senior Vice President Melissa Miller, J.D., recognized Sally Myers, the College’s director of counseling and academic advising. For 15 years, Myers refined and improved the process for student services. She also served as a tireless advocate for students with disabilities.

Miller also recognized Anne Eller, an instructor in the Adult Education Department, who taught adults with disabilities at the ARC of Putnam County for 15 years.

The THCA is owned and operated by SJR State and is located on the Orange Park campus at 283 College Drive.

The College was established in 1958 as a public institution serving Putnam, Clay and St. Johns counties. St. Johns River State College is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to award associate and baccalaureate degrees. Contact the Commission on Colleges at 1866 Southern Lane, Decatur, Georgia 30033-4097 or call 404-679-4500 for questions about the accreditation of St. Johns River State College.