SJR State honors graduates
St. Johns River State College celebrated its Spring Commencement on May 5, honoring the students who are candidates to earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees or college credit certificates for the 2017 spring and summer terms.
Friday’s commencement represented generations of dreams realized, career changes and stories of personal growth and perseverance – success stories for each of the 470+ students ranging in age from 17 to 50 and beyond.
More than 240 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.
During the ceremony, SJR State President Joe Pickens introduced the commencement speaker, Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels. During his address, Daniels shared a story about a tree that bears a particularly appealing fruit, a tree that grows strong in every community, state and nation – the tree of mediocrity.
“To eat the fruit of mediocrity means that you are comfortable with living life in the middle… not taking a leadership role, or not taking a fellowship, but being somewhere in the middle,” Daniels said. “I stand here to tell you it’s not good for you as an individual, it’s not good for us as a community… or as Americans.”
Daniels encouraged the graduates to step forward and be seen, reminding them that they have the potential to impact lives. “I believe that we, as individuals, have a duty in this life to say things, do things and move things to help people’s lives as we go through this life together,” he said. “I am challenging you as the graduates of 2017, to be the leaders you are capable of being. We have not seen the best you have to offer, so impress us.”
Danielle Sutliff, of Putnam County, was presented the Valedictorian Award. The award is given based on grade point average and difficulty of courses. Sutliff earned her Associate in Arts degree and will transfer to the University of North Florida in the fall to major in mathematics and minor in creative writing. According to Sutliff, she could find a creative way to use her love of math to solve the problem of world hunger.
While uncertain about how she'd like to one day apply her mathematics degree, Sutliff may transfer those skills to the field of statistics and then use statistics to help eradicate world hunger. "I know it's very cliché, but I really want to help feed people," she said. "I want to end world hunger, because we have enough food to feed everybody; we just don't distribute it correctly."
A portion of the ceremony was dedicated to presenting the Paul “Dee” Causey President’s Award. President Pickens presented award to Orange Park campus student Dillon Wells.
The award honors the memory of the SJR State alumnus 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.”
Pickens shared Wells’ story that exemplifies what nominating professor Ben Gil described as truly beating the odds and, “Overcoming adversity and hitting a home run with the curveball life threw at him.”
Academic life was progressing normally for Dillon Wells when he graduated from Ridgeview High School in 2011. Like many other students, he enrolled in classes at SJR State and was moving along with his higher education goals until life suddenly changed for him in 2012 when he was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease that paralyzed the lower half of his body.
Wells reflected on how significantly his life changed after his diagnosis, and after four long years away from school, he finally decided to return to SJR State, only to discover how much material he’d forgotten. “Academically, I struggled. Extremely!” he said. “I had to start from the bottom all over again. At one point, I was even on academic probation.” However, with the support of his professors, family and friends, he completed his Associate in Arts degree and plans to transfer to a university this fall where he will major in hospitality management.
While Wells will tell you that his disease has taught him patience and willpower, what he desires most is to stand for something and to continue to inspire others. "I want people, students, to see the type of determination that I have acquired when it comes to academics and personal life,” Wells said. “Yes, I may be wheelchair bound, but I won't let my disability defeat me nor keep me from reaching my dreams. We all know that life, in general, is hard, but if you can inspire someone to not give up or to continue to fight, well, that's just rewarding.”
Among the graduates were 13 high school students who were dually enrolled at SJR State, including Lillian Spofford.
Spofford earned her Associate in Arts degree and will transfer to the University of North Florida this fall. She has been accepted into UNF's Hicks Honors College where she plans to major in psychology and minor in criminal justice. The Ridgeview High School senior not only completed her college degree while in high school, she was also active in the Phi Theta Kappa honor society and served as a member of the campus’s Rotaract Club.
"Joining clubs is the best part about college," Spofford said. "I always felt welcomed, and I made really great friends with common goals. Spofford explained that as a student who didn't initially know too many people on campus, club participation opened the door for her to more easily make friends and build a network that led to new and exciting opportunities. Spofford is delighted that her club involvement also showed her how much she had in common with other students whom she may not have befriended on her own.
Thinking ahead, Spofford hopes to one day adopt a child in need and become involved with animal shelters. "I believe in being a voice for those who lack one," she said.
Also among the graduates was Patricia Yates, whose cap and gown may have looked identical to those worn by fellow graduates; however, there was one unique distinction. It was the same cap and gown worn by her daughter, Catharine, who graduated from SJR State one year before. Patricia, 56, credits her daughter for acclimating her to college classes. “I have to give her a lot of credit for breaking the ice with me,” Patricia said. “I feel both honored and sentimental to wear her cap and gown.”
What began as a counseling appointment for her daughter several years ago ended with the counselor encouraging Patricia to apply. “I mentioned how happy I was that she could go to college and how I wished I had been able to do so myself.” Patricia had put her own education on hold to homeschool her three children.
After beginning classes at SJR State, Catharine encouraged her mother to join her. “She invited me to share classes with her and to even be her lab partner,” Patricia said. “How many times does a mom get an offer like that from a 17-year-old? It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
“So, we figured out which classes we both lacked - she was almost finished by then - and thus, my first classes back to school after 30 years were Chemistry and American Literature II.”
“I would never have had the courage to walk into that classroom as a student among all those smart, young people without Catharine’s encouragement. If I panicked or felt overwhelmed, she cheered me on... and after the first semester, I felt confident enough to continue.”
As for Patricia’s future plans, she intends to use the information she has gained from her science classes to aid her in her volunteer and foster care efforts for rescued animals. Patricia also plans to re-enter the workforce. “I hope this will help me break back into the workforce by demonstrating that this old dog can - and is willing to - learn a few new tricks,” she said.
Also among the graduates was Alan Rick. At 18 years old, Rick was selected in the fourth round of the MLB draft by the Chicago Cubs and made an 11-year career as a catcher in the baseball minor leagues. Fast forward 15 years, and Rick is preparing for a new position with his Bachelor’s Degree in Organizational Management.
Rick returned to Palatka after ending his career in baseball to be among his family and friends. “This is where my roots are,” he said. “I went to high school here; my family is here… there’s nowhere else I really needed to be.”
While Rick boasts that his mom, Sherry Rick, has been his biggest fan, and his grandfather, Donald Rick, has been his biggest motivator to finish school, his passion for the game and for coaching has continued to play a key role in his success. Balancing classes with his current job as the head baseball coach for Palatka High School, Rick believes he may have found his new niche.
“I’ve always had a passion for coaching. I love working with kids; that’s why I’m a coach now,” Rick said. “I guess I got that trait from my dad (Sam Rick). Even when I was in high school, I would help him with his baseball camps.”
Rick is looking forward to combining his newfound business skills with the skills he mastered on the field. “Being a catcher, you learn a lot of business traits. You learn how to be a leader and how to rally people around you. That’s similar to any business aspect. You have to be able to work with others,” he said, comparing the two.
Rick is ready for whatever doors his degree may open, as long as coaching can remain part of his life. Whether it’s opening his own sports academy or one day working as an athletic director, Rick is ready to, once again, hit the ball out of the park.
Also among the graduates was Frankya Clark. While Clark’s job as a custodian helps to pay the bills and provide for her family, she dreams of something more - not only for herself, but for her children as well. Clark, a 31-year-old single mother of three, says that earning her college credit certificate and preparing for a new career as a medical office professional is certainly a step in the right direction.
“I went back to school to better myself and set the bar high for my girls,” Clark said, adding that she reminds them daily that if she can return to school and make good grades, they can make good grades, too, emphasizing to them, “Now make mommy proud!”
“Being a full time mother, student and employee is one of the hardest jobs to do. I put my mind to it and kept God on my side,” Clark said. “Never give up!”
Clark plans to continue taking classes until she “crosses that finish line” and turns her certificate into an A.S. degree in Office Administration Management.
Also among the graduates was 50-year-old Michael Hughes. In 2004, Hughes was injured in a motocross accident that left him a quadriplegic. After 10 years of rehabilitation, Hughes regained partial use of his limbs and he enrolled at SJR State. While often depending on public transportation, Hughes will tell you that just making it to class, could at times, be an enormous task. Hughes would often wait for hours after his classes for transportation home.
Having been out of school for some time, becoming acclimated to classes would also prove to be challenging. Hughes enrolled in developmental writing courses, where his talent for creative writing was quickly noticed by faculty. His knack for English soon led to a tutoring position in the College’s academic support center.
College staff admired Hughes’ strong, optimistic outlook, as well as the impact Hughes’ had on other students who would seek him out for academic or personal advice. “He really kept a positive spirit and was able to consistently share that with others,” said academic support coordinator Bill Batlle.
Four years, a specially-equipped truck and a few obstacles later, Hughes has earned his Associate in Arts degree and plans to transfer to the University of North Florida to earn a degree in English, and ultimately become an English professor.
Despite Hughes’ challenges, his outlook remains the same. “When life gets you down, keep rolling,” he said. “Keep your head up, and no matter what, keep going forward, because there’s only one way to go.”
A portion of the ceremony was dedicated to acknowledging retiring faculty. SJR State’s Senior Vice President Melissa Miller recognized nursing instructor Jill Scott for her 15 years of service. During her time at the College, Scott also continued to work as a nurse in Flagler Hospital’s critical care unit, working side by side with nurses she has trained.
Miller also recognized economics and ethics professor John Mundy for his 15 years of service. Mundy’s extensive career included being published expansively in the field of economics, as well as testifying as an expert in Congress and in multiple state Houses.
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.
Director of Public Relations and Publications