SJR State honors graduates
St. Johns River State College celebrated its Fall Commencement on December 14, honoring the students who are candidates to earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees or college credit certificates.
Thursday’s commencement represented generations of dreams realized, career changes and stories of personal growth and perseverance – success stories for each of the 600+ students ranging in age from 20 to 60 and beyond.
More than 100 students from the Orange Park, Palatka and St. Augustine campuses participated in the ceremony held at the Thrasher-Horne Center located on the Orange Park campus.
The ceremony began with the College honoring the memory of Orange Park Campus Librarian Dixie Yeager who passed away this semester. Dixie was a respected member of the College community for 19 years. Her dedication and commitment has been an integral part of the Orange Park campus’s success and growth. As campus Librarian, Dixie was a fierce advocate for her staff and patrons. She loved the library and those it served.
Former College Trustee Ron Coleman delivered the keynote speech. He is the principal and chief executive officer of BARONCO Management Consultants Inc. in Clay County. In addition to serving on the College Board of Trustees from 2011 to 2017, Coleman was a member of the Clay County Development Authority from 2001 to 2008 and also served as chairman.
He was the first black student-athlete to be given a scholarship at the University of Florida. Coleman also served in the United States Navy from 1975 to 1997.
During his speech, Coleman spoke on how “attitude determines altitude,” tying his message to his military experience.
Coleman advised the graduates to be mindful of how their attitude not only affects their own behavior, but also affects those around them. Coleman urged the graduates to lead by example as they continue to climb the ladder of success.
“You’re no longer sitting at the threshold and awaiting clearance to takeoff. You are now airborne, and it’s up to you to maintain that status,” he said. “And while you’re soaring, remember this – ability is what you’re capable of doing, motivation determines what you do, but attitude determines how well you do it.”
During the ceremony, Ekaterina Egorova, 40, of Clay County, was presented with the Valedictorian award. The award is given based on grade point average, difficulty of courses and involvement in extracurricular activities. Egorova, originally from Russia, earned her Associate in Arts degree. She plans to continue her education at the University of Florida where she will pursue a bachelor’s degree in accounting. She would ultimately like to become a CPA.
Paul “Dee” Causey President’s Award
During his address, SJR State President Joe Pickens presented the Paul “Dee” Causey President’s Award to Keyshmarie Lagares.
Each year, the award honors the memory of the SJR State alumnus and Crescent City native who Pickens described as not only his mentor, but a fearless athlete and dedicated family and businessman, who achieved 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.”
Lagares, a native of Puerto Rico, refused to let personal and financial hurdles become obstacles in her path to success. Relying solely on scholarships and a fulltime job, Lagares was able to earn her Associate in Arts degree while attending college full time, maintaining a 3.0 GPA, purchasing a home and renovating it, all by the age of 20.
Pickens praised Lagares for being intuitive and resourceful, and for her ability to “go it alone.” “She was left to her own devices and her own resources,” Pickens told the audience. “Sometimes working all night and then attending classes the next day.”
Reflecting on how overwhelming juggling those responsibilities felt, Lagares said, “There was so many times I felt I just couldn't do it anymore, but I tried to always think positive and remind myself that I must keep striving for more, and it would be worth it in the end.”
Now, with her first degree under her belt, Lagares will continue to strive for more. With her sights set on becoming a radiologic technician, she will apply to the College’s radiology program in April. In the meantime, she’ll be working on her bachelor’s degree at SJR State. “I've chosen to work on both because I have a full scholarship, which I am beyond grateful for, so I want to take advantage of having it,” she said. “Instead of taking a semester off and waiting until April to apply for the radiology program, I figured why not start working on my BAS now? That way, when I’m done with the radiology program, I'll be a lot closer to finishing my bachelor’s program.”
It's never too late to return to college
Among the graduates was Joanna Miller, a 57-year-old Putnam County resident who returned to school to earn her Associate in Science degree in Business Administration after homeschooling her four children.
Miller, who graduated with honors, admits that while returning to school has had its challenges, it has been one of the most rewarding decisions she has ever made. “Investing in myself has been a difficult pattern to change,” Miller said. Yet, investing in others, is a talent that seems to come naturally.
“We are all created to become great. I believe in people, and I want to do what God wants me to do with that,” Miller said. “It’s in my heart to encourage other people to be the best they can be.”
Miller chose to enroll in the business administration program after discovering she had a knack for managing people during a previous job. “When I took that first class, it was right there in black and white. It was my heart of hearts, and I knew I was on the right track,” she said.
Miller credits her professors for sparking her love of learning. “I did not realize how much I loved to learn,” she said, adding that she hopes more people realize the importance of earning a college degree. “College can open your eyes to so many things - meeting new people, understanding your community better, and how much work and time the professors invest to be there.”
Throughout her journey, Miller’s family has been supportive, she said, amused at how she was more surprised at her accomplishment than they were. “I just want them to think that if you aim high, you come out high,” Miller said. “We all have the capability to do that. We just have to believe in ourselves.”
Also among the graduates was Barbara Thompson. In 2014, Thompson, 61, picked back up a life goal she initially set down in 1974; she returned to college to work on her Associate in Arts degree.
During Thompson’s first round of college, she put her academic goals on hold to raise her family. She also lacked finances at the time to complete what she had begun. Thompson’s second round of college, 43 years later, wasn’t challenge-free, either. During her second semester, she had to once again pause from her studies due to a bi-lateral knee replacement. “I managed to return the following semester,” she said. Then, the following year, Thompson lost her mom to cancer. “She’s greatly missed. I'm glad I was able to hear her say that she was proud of me,” said Thompson.
Overall, what has Thompson found most valuable about studying at SJR State? “The support of faculty, staff and other students,” she said. “They all provided me with constant encouragement.”
In the fall, she plans to work on her bachelor’s degree at Saint Leo University.
Increased value in the workplace
According to Bill Garrison, 57, the ability to immediately apply the information he was learning in class back in the workplace has been what he’s found most valuable about his studies.
“It was uncanny how it seemed like the material we were studying in class – HR, finances, strategic planning, organization behavior, and on and on – could be used at work the next day,” he said. “I am such a better business person and manager because of my education at SJR State."
Garrison, the executive officer of the Northeast Florida Builders Association, first earned his Associate in Arts degree at SJR State, and now his Bachelor's Degree in Organizational Management.
"I joined the U.S. Navy right after high school, and always regretted not going to college," he said. "St. Johns River State College was accessible because the campus was in Orange Park, and I fell in love with the quality of the instruction and the heart and soul of the administrators who run the College."
Garrison’s list of challenges while working on his bachelor’s degree includes time management and trying to keep up with several classes per semester, maintaining a respectable GPA, working full-time, and balancing a normal family life. “But this is where Dr. Karen Balcanoff and Dr. Anna Lebesch were helpful -- maybe even unknowingly -- by encouraging me and reminding me there is an end, eventually!" he said.
Garrison, whose employer is the largest homebuilders’ association in Florida and the 5th largest in the United States, said that without his latest degree, he would not even have been a candidate for his current position. "Because of the knowledge I gained through all of the courses studied, I feel very confident in my ability to successfully manage and grow this organization. Every day, I reflect on the lessons learned, especially in the area of strategic management and understanding financial markets."
A portion of the ceremony was dedicated to retiring faculty. SJR State’s Senior Vice President Melissa Miller recognized mathematics professor Sherry Colarusso, who retires after seven years with the College and a 33-year career in education, during which time she taught math at all levels, developed curriculum, wrote grants and consulted with school districts throughout the country regarding best practices for teaching math. Colarusso is known for her belief that all students can and will learn math.
Also recognized was the SJR State’s Chief Information Officer Mike Hawkins. Hawkins dedicated 16 years to expanding the College’s use of technology, developing a college-wide wireless network and disaster recovery systems, as well as installing instructional technology in all classrooms.
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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