SJR State honors graduates
St. Johns River State College celebrated its Spring Commencement on May 6, honoring the students who are candidates to earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees or college credit certificates for the 2016 spring and summer terms.
Friday’s commencement represented generations of dreams realized, career changes and stories of personal growth and perseverance – success stories for more than 500 graduates. The audience cheered on a diverse class of graduates ranging in age from 18 to 50 and beyond, a class sharing a similar desire to pursue careers aimed at serving their communities.
More than 200 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.
Also during the ceremony, Jessica Jacobs, 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 receiving the Valedictorian Award, Jacobs has also been inducted into the SJR State Hall of Fame.
Jacobs, who graduates with her Associate in Science Degree in Business Administration and a 4.0 GPA - while working several part-time jobs - is also the recipient of the Dr. Applewhite Humanitarian Scholarship Award. The scholarship was created in honor of the late SJR State science professor and is awarded each year to a student who demonstrates diligence in community efforts.
Described by her professors as a student who is willing to help anyone with anything at anytime, Jacob said, “I take my willingness and ability as a responsibility to help others who are less able to do things for themselves… There’s a lot to learn from those people, because we’ve all had different experiences and we’re at different places in our lives.”
“I’ve really found that through helping people you learn so much about yourself and also end up in amazing situations that you would have never really imagined yourself in otherwise,” said.
Jacobs plans to continue her education at the University of North Florida.
Among the graduates was Matthew Davis. Before attending SJR State, the Pomona Park native served in the United States Army for 11 years, including four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Davis earned his Associate in Science degree in Radiologic Technology, a career path he believes will sustain his desire to serve others. Davis completed the program at the top of his class, attaining the highest average for both clinical and academic grades.
Davis contributes much of his success to a strong work ethic, a principle he first understood by growing up on a farm and later reinforced serving in the military. “There you have to put 100% into everything you do,” he said. Davis plans to continue his education and ultimately sees a future in practicing medicine as a radiologist.
Earning her A.A. degree was Elizabeth Ashley Harris. She is this year's recipient of the academic excellence awards in chemistry and physics. This fall, Harris will transfer into the University of Florida’s biomedical engineering (BME) program. “For a long time, I was unsure of which path I wanted to take in school,” said Harris. “I’ve always had an interest in math and the sciences, especially biology, but was at a loss for what to do in the field.”
While Harris's church involvement helped her to realize the importance of helping others, it wasn't until her grandfather became an amputee that she received inspiration and clarity about which academic path to take. “I witnessed, firsthand, the struggles amputees can have with ordinary day-to-day activities,” Harris said, “BME combines my love of math and science in a way that would allow me to help those in similar situations as my granddad.”
Like Harris, nursing graduate Josie Sims knew the field in which she wanted to work, but didn’t have a clear plan. Then, a tragic accident that claimed the life of her 8-year-old son gave her clarity. “At the hospital, I became familiar with terms that I never wanted to know. I kept thinking about how the nurses there made such a difference in my life,” Sims said. “This was the hardest thing that I had ever endured, yet these nurses seemed to know and understand. It took a while to get there, but I knew then that I wanted to be that anchor of hope and strength for other people.”
Sims’ professors will tell you that this sense of fervor has followed her throughout the program and provides insight into their decision to present her with the Florence Nightingale Award. Each year, the award is given to one student who has demonstrated compassion toward others, leadership in class and devotion to clients and their families throughout the program. Sims was presented with the award during the College’s pinning ceremony following Friday’s commencement.
Sims plans to continue her education with SJR State’s bachelor’s degree in nursing program while preferably working in emergency care, labor and delivery or in an intensive care unit.
During the ceremony, SJR State President Joe Pickens introduced the ceremony’s speaker, Clay County Commissioner Diane Hutchings. Hutchings currently serves as chairman of the Clay County Commission and as vice chair of the North Florida Transportation Planning Organization. She has more than 25 years of experience in the financial services industry and is the managing director of First Florida Investment Services.
Reflecting on what she called her own personal “back-to-back losses,” Hutchings stressed the importance of choosing to not be a victim. “Life is hard, but God is good,” she said. “My losses improved my ability to see pain in others, to understand the unspoken pain, to know what a difference it makes just to see a tender look, a gentle smile from a stranger that says ‘I know; life is hard.’”
“These losses allowed me to see the bigger picture,” Hutchings continued. “Life isn’t fair, and that’s normal. But what you do with those unfair things can bring you a peace and a deeper understanding if you choose not to be defined by those circumstances, but be defined by your character. There’s a whole big world of opportunity out there. Live in a way that makes a difference.”
During the ceremony, President Pickens presented the inaugural Paul “Dee” Causey President’s Award to student-athlete Matthew Rhodes.
The award honors the memory of the late Paul Causey, a Crescent City native and SJR State alumni, who Pickens described as not only his friend and 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.”
Before presenting the award to Rhodes, Pickens shared the student’s ability to endure and overcome an unspeakable family tragedy. “He persevered, he overcame, he improved, and he did what Dee Causey would have done when facing obstacles that seemed unsurmountable,” Pickens said. “This young man has the most right to complain, but he never did. He only strives to be the best teammate and person he could be. He is the embodiment of the spirit of Dee Causey.”
Also among the graduates were 22 dual enrollment students and four Collier-Blocker In-District Minority Scholarship graduates.
A portion of the ceremony was dedicated to acknowledging retiring faculty. SJR State’s Senior Vice President Melissa Miller, J.D., recognized English professor Doug Ledbetter (33 years), professor and associate dean of nursing Billie Blake (13 years), English and reading professor Julie Kelly (18 years) and English professor Michael Crocker (25 years).
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.