SJR State honors graduates
St. Johns River State College celebrated its Spring Commencement on May 4, honoring the students who are candidates to earn associate’s and bachelor’s degrees or college credit certificates for the 2018 spring and summer terms.
The commencement represented generations of dreams realized, career changes and stories of personal growth and perseverance – more than 600 success stories. The diverse class of graduates ranged from 30 dual-enrolled high school seniors completing their A.A. degree coursework to a 70-year-old retired Merchant Marine Captain who decided it was time to reinvent himself.
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.
Lawrence Fernandez, of Clay County, was presented the Valedictorian Award. The award is given based on grade point average and difficulty of courses. Fernandez earned his Associate in Arts degree and will transfer to the University of North Florida in the fall to major in mechanical engineering.
During the ceremony, President Joe Pickens introduced the commencement speaker, Florida Representative and SJR State alumnus Bobby Payne. During his address, Rep. Payne shared several life lessons he has learned over the past 40 years, beginning with his stint as a student-athlete at SJR State. With an overall message of perseverance, Payne reminded the graduates to never be too busy to listen to others, laugh, pray and embrace change.
“Your generation, as much as any other throughout history, will continue to be challenged over and over. Change brings challenge, challenge brings opportunity,” Payne said. “You will be tested daily. Don’t be afraid to fail. Persevere!”
Payne concluded with what he considered to be the most important advice of all.
“Find time to balance your life. Make sure that in your success, you do not neglect your family,” he said. “After all, the point of being successful is to enjoy life.”
A portion of the ceremony was dedicated to presenting the Paul “Dee” Causey President’s Award. Each year, the award honors the memory of an SJR State alumnus whom Pickens described as not only his mentor, but a fearless athlete, dedicated family man and successful businessman. “Dee Causey loved the underdog, and he loved nothing more than helping the underdog succeed,” Pickens said.
President Pickens presented the award to Putnam County native Mary Steele. The 45-year-old radiologic technology graduate, who now resides in St. Augustine, was selected for the award based on her perseverance, despite the hardships she faced before and throughout her collegiate journey.
“I feel like I started out like a statistic,” she said, referring to her unstable childhood and rebellious teen years. “By all reasoning, I should’ve turned out differently, instead of where I am now,” she said.
Despite a rocky start, Steele eventually found her purpose and enrolled in college. Adversity followed. Steele’s academic journey at SJR State is one that has endured many challenges, including juggling classes and clinicals with a part-time job, personal tragedies, family loss, and financial obstacles. Faculty members who nominated Steele for the award said that despite her tests and trials, her strength and compassion for others has truly been an inspiration. Steel was also commended for maintaining excellent grades and performance evaluations at the program’s clinical sites.
Throughout Steele’s journey, one thing has remained consistent – her positive attitude.
“Failure is not an option for me. I refuse to be defeated,” Steele said. “Life doesn’t stop… If you want to get anywhere in life, you have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, put your head down and just keep going.”
In addition to receiving the Dr. Applewhite Humanitarian Scholarship and a Student Leadership Award on the St. Augustine campus, Steele was inducted into the College’s Hall of Fame.
Special recognition was also given to this year’s Collier-Blocker Scholarship graduates – Ben Douse, Suren Jeevaratnam and Jartavias Milton. The scholarship was created in 2012 to reach out to minority students for the betterment of the communities served by the College. The scholarship honors one of the state’s 12 original Black Junior Colleges, which opened in 1960 and offered postsecondary educational opportunities for Black students from surrounding counties. The Collier-Blocker College later merged with St. Johns River Junior College in 1965.
Also among the graduates was Putnam County resident Carolyn Gore, 41, a single mom of special-needs twins. To say that Gore’s academic journey, at times, has been a bit overwhelming would be an understatement. In addition to juggling classes and family obligations, Gore is a person living with Cerebral Palsy. “I know what it feels like to think you’re never going to get there,” she said, explaining how she initially began attending college classes after high school, until marriage, a divorce, children and her own special needs presented too many diversions.
But as thrilled as Gore is with her accomplishment, she doesn’t really see herself as an inspiration. “I do believe that if you have goals, no matter how long it takes you to get there, you can do it,” Gore said.
“In my case,” she continued, “I’ve been working at it so long, I’ll be honest, there were a couple of times I wanted to say ‘forget it, I’m tired. I don’t want to do this,’ but the more I thought about it, what would I have accomplished if I gave up? What would all that time and all that effort have gone toward? I guess that’s what kept me going. That and the fact that I had to be a role model for my kids,” she said. “It’s been hard, but I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world.”
Gore’s next step is to find employment with her Associate in Science degree in Medical Office Administration. “I’m hoping I can find something, because I really enjoy work,” she said, referencing an internship she completed with a family care office as part of her capstone class. “I absolutely loved it. I loved the people. I loved meeting new patients every day,” she said. “As long as I’m helping somebody. Then that’s what makes me happy.”
Chance Cumbo, 27, has spent the last two and a half years earning both his Associate in Arts (transfer) degree and his Associate in Science degree in Business Administration. His next stop will be at Flagler College, where a bachelor’s degree in Exceptional Student Education will allow him to combine his knack for teaching with his desire to help other students with disabilities. “I want to help those who have similar issues as mine,” he said.
During his childhood, Cumbo suffered from a brain tumor that crushed his optic nerve, blinding him in one eye and damaging his sight in the other. But his disability hasn’t hindered his academic progress. Instead, it has given him a different approach to learning and teaching, an approach he has shared with others. In addition to his coursework, Cumbo has worked as a tutor in the College’s Academic Support Center, tutoring other students in English, Spanish and math. Yes, math.
Cumbo said he would eventually like to attend law school and become a disability lawyer, enabling him to also help those who have faced the same issues he had when trying to attain disability benefits.
Also among the graduates was Ariel Azevedo. A military wife and mother of three children – one with Autism, Azevedo endured a broken ankle and two torn ligaments this past semester without hindering her academic progress. She has maintained a 4.0 GPA throughout her academic journey at SJR State. A biology major with plans to attend medical school and become a surgeon, Azevedo explained, “As a non-traditional student and a mother driving kids to ballet and basketball, it can be hard to get study time in. But my children can tell you all about biology, from cell structure all the way to taxonomy, because I have my science lectures playing in the car constantly.” Azevedo, who serves as president of the College's Spanish Club and the young adult ministry leader at her church, plans to remain at SJR State for two additional semesters to complete her prerequisites for the University of Florida's biology program.
Twins Jordan and Jennifer Heyn each earned their Associate in Arts degree. Jordan will transfer to the University of Central Florida and major in mechanical engineering and minor in American Sign Language. Jennifer will transfer to Queens University and major in Music Therapy. After volunteering at Brooks Rehab Center, she discovered there was a way to combine her love for music with her desire to help others.
A portion of the ceremony was dedicated to acknowledging retiring faculty. SJR State’s Senior Vice President Melissa Miller recognized biology instructor Kim Hakala for her 21 years of service, and for her service as a Phi Theta Kappa honor society advisor. Hakala also served on the committee which led to the College’s distinction as a Tree Campus College.
Miller also recognized accounting and business professor Deborah Hinton for her 19 years of service and Mary Anne Laney, the College’s Dean of Nursing, for her eight years of service.
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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