SJR State honors graduates
St. Johns River State College celebrated its Fall Commencement on December 15, honoring the students who are candidates to earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees or college credit certificates for the 2016 summer and fall terms.
Thursday’s commencement represented generations of dreams realized, career changes and stories of personal growth and perseverance – success stories for each of the 650+ students ranging in age from 17 to 74.
More than 130 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.
During the ceremony, Michelle Terrell, 19, of St. Johns County, was presented with the Valedictorian Award. The award is given based on grade point average, difficulty of courses and involvement in extracurricular activities. In addition to her Associate in Arts degree, Terrell earned two business certificates and a certificate in accounting technology. She intends to major in accounting at the University of North Florida.
SJR State President Joe Pickens then presented the Paul “Dee” Causey President’s Award to Angelica Rodriguez.
The award honors the memory of a former SJR State alumnus, who Pickens described as not only his mentor, but a fearless athlete and dedicated family and businessman, achieving many successes, “All while maintaining his genuine humbleness and his care for the fellow man,” Pickens said. “Dee Causey loved the underdog, and he loved nothing more than helping the underdog succeed.”
Pickens shared Rodriguez’s story that exemplifies what professors describe as “beyond-all-odds” determination. Originally from Puerto Rico, Rodriguez has persevered through physical limitations as well as a language barrier to earn her Associate in Arts degree. Rodriguez was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy at the age of five. After receiving successful treatments in Miami, she regained her strength until a relapse at the age of 16 left her bound to a wheel chair.
Nominated for her resolute spirit, SJR State Professor Jane Terry said the Orange Park campus student has gained the respect of her fellow classmates for her steadfastness and personal growth over the past two years.
On the award nomination form, Terry wrote “Because of her timidity and entrance through the developmental programs. I honestly thought she would possibly drop out due to her unfortunate circumstances; however, she proved me wrong both academically and personally.”
“She has certainly beaten the odds and has shown me that her diligence and constancy were her presiding, dominant qualities,” Terri continued. “The past two years at SJR State have produced a confident, tenacious young woman who has not only accepted her fate, but has also persevered and has accomplished academic success that I never recognized was possible.”
Rodriguez will continue her education at SJR State in the Organizational Management bachelor’s degree program.
Among the graduates was Cynthia Swarthout, a mother of three who chose to wait until her children had careers of their own before delving into her own college degree. At the age of 55, Swarthout has earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Organizational Management and advises, “If you have the desire to obtain a degree, follow your heart. Take a steady pace and do not get discouraged. The end result is worth the work,” she said, despite being displaced from her home due to damages sustained during Hurricane Matthew. The Green Cove Springs resident persevered and took residence at the Shiloh Baptist Church for the remainder of the fall semester.
“I completed the last semester of my degree living in a church,” she said. “But I feel blessed to have a place to stay as our home is rebuilt.”
Swarthout sees herself working one day in an administrative position.
Also among the graduates was 74-year-old Nelsy Concepcion, who has demonstrated that it’s never too late to attend college. The Dominican Republic native came to Florida in the 1970s, where she worked and raised her family before moving to Putnam County in 2004. Her academic journey at SJR State began with earning her GED and concluded Thursday with receiving her Associate in Arts degree. Concepcion said that although it took her four years to complete her degree, “The most important thing is, I made it,” she said.
Reflecting on her time at SJR State, Concepcion said she has experienced so many special moments and has many things for which she is grateful, including the SJR State adult education and tutoring departments. “I was encouraged by them to continue with my efforts to graduate and not to dismay, even though I was horrified taking every exam,” she said.
Concepcion shared her dream of continuing her education in astronomy. “That has been my dream since I was in high school some 60 years ago,” she said.
Also among the graduates were sisters Cara and Natalie Butcher. Cara has completed her Associate in Arts degree and plans to study psychology at the University of North Florida. She aspires to become a mental health counselor. As for Natalie, she completed her Bachelor’s Degree in Early Childhood Education and fondly credits her teachers at Interlachen High School for inspiring her to become an educator.
“I was homeschooled until high school, and the transition into a public school was very difficult for me. The teachers I had in high school not only helped me make it to graduation, but also helped countless other students who may have otherwise dropped out,” Natalie said. “I saw how caring and genuine they were, and how they helped and inspired students to push through to graduation, despite sometimes having extremely dire circumstances at home. I decided before I graduated from high school that a teacher was the person I wanted to be.”
Cara said her sister has always been great with children. “She is sweet, empathetic, artistic and creative by nature,” Cara said. “She is a passionate leader and a hard worker. She possesses all of the qualities that make a great teacher, and I know that once she starts working in the field, she will accomplish great things.”
According to Cara, attending college at the same time as her big sister has been meaningful. “College is a lot of work and can definitely be stressful sometimes, so it is great to have someone to lean on during those times,” she said. “Natalie and I have continuously helped each other proofread assignments and study for tests. We have shared textbooks and even let each other know which professors and classes we like. We have been able to learn from each other’s experiences.”
Natalie said that any time spent at SJR State with her sister was always a good time. “We’d spend time in the library together, procrastinating schoolwork, or sharing stories of crazy classmates or funny teachers,” Natalie said. “I remember during one of the frolics at the College, they had an old western photo shoot activity, and the photo we took there still makes me laugh to this day, every time I look at it.”
Looking ahead, Natalie said she thinks her sister would make an ideal counselor because of her empathy toward others. “She has always put others before herself, and she has always been really interested in the field of psychology,” she said. “I think many people disregard the impact mental illness has on people, and I know my sister is adamant about helping others and having a meaningful, fulfilling career.”
Also among the graduates was Kimberly Stubbs. Fascinated by how and why mechanical systems worked during her childhood, Stubbs fondly recalls watching her father rebuild his 1965 Mustangs and loved helping him out whenever she could. This interest led her to major in materials engineering; however, she dropped out half way through her second semester. “There were many times over the past 25 years when I considered going back to college, but with young children and a husband in the Navy, attending classes didn't seem like an option for me,” Stubbs said.
As Stubbs entered her 40s, her fascination for exploring how things work was still there. Now, at age 44, she is graduating with her Associate in Arts degree from SJR State and transferring to the University of Florida, where she will major in mechanical engineering in a combined bachelor’s and master’s program. “Upon graduation, I hope to work in robotics and the ever-growing field of autonomous systems,” Stubbs said.
Also among the graduates was Shannon Bates, 22, who thinks everyone needs someone to believe in them. Bates said that she earned her Bachelor's Degree in Early Childhood Education so she can become that person.
"Teachers help children grow into who they will become," Bates said. "I want to be a positive influence by letting my students know that they are worthy of any dream they may have." Bates hopes to find a teaching position in time for the next school year and has held onto her vision of being a “teacher/cheerleader” for as long as she can remember, although her path has not always been as cheery as her dream. She met some serious emotional challenges along the way.
At the beginning of her studies, Bates gave birth to her daughter, Ariella. Although Bates completed her first semester, she encountered unbearable separation anxiety while away from her daughter. "It almost killed me to be away from her," said Bates, who recalls sobbing hysterically over the situation and feeling like a failure in the eyes of her teachers, family, classmates and herself.
"My daughter had colic, I had a heavy course load, and I was exhausted. It was suffocating. I felt as if I wasn't able to give 100% to my schoolwork or my daughter,” Bates explained. “After someone reached out to me, I went to see a doctor. I was diagnosed with postpartum depression and anxiety. It's incredibly common, but people don't often speak out about mental health, especially postpartum.” She soon reached out to the program’s dean and was encouraged to take some time off, emphasizing her need to be healthy and happy above all else. That message hit home deeply for Bates.
"I felt so liberated and cared for," she said. "I don't know if Dr. Allen even remembers that conversation, but she changed my life that day."
Following the dean’s advice, Bates returned to SJR State that summer. She fondly remembers how faculty helped her to get back on track with her classes, and while her prior challenges hadn't totally escaped her, her support system was far more powerful than her challenges. “I was encouraged and supported by my family, friends, fiancé, classmates, professors and the entire education department," said Bates. “They are my most valuable part of SJR State. They are the reason I will be walking across that stage and into a classroom of my own."
During the ceremony, Pickens introduced the guest speaker, SJR State alumnus Ron Brown. Brown graduated from St. Johns River Junior College in 1968 before transferring to the University of Florida, where he earned a Juris Doctor degree. His extensive career includes more than 27 years dedicated to public law and local government, including serving as the attorney for the City of St. Augustine before retiring in 2014. He currently serves as legal counsel for the SJR State District Board of Trustees. Brown also serves as chairman of the SJR State Foundation Board of Directors, as well as a director for The Arc of the St. Johns.
During his address to the graduates, Brown spoke of how the future will always hold uncertainty, but he remains optimistic that the graduates will persevere. “What you accomplished in class will matter in your future,” he said, emphasizing that the classroom is where they learned to think critically, discern facts, acquire knowledge, and embrace disruption and uncertainty.
“We all, regardless of our ages, but especially as we commence our careers, need to keep an open mind, an intellectual curiosity and a healthy skepticism. We need to push ourselves intellectually, live with uncertainty and chart our own courses. The future will be decided by addressing open ended questions, the answers to which will generate more questions,” Brown said. “Embrace the process; trust yourselves and your judgments; make the future yours.”
Brown concluded by quoting Abraham Lincoln: “Things may come to those who wait, but only things left by those who hustle.”
A portion of the ceremony was dedicated to acknowledging retiring faculty. SJR State’s Senior Vice President Melissa Miller, J.D., recognized Terri Klienpoppen for her 16 years of service teaching composition I and II, reading and study skills, and developmental reading.
The Thrasher-Horne Center 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.
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