SJR State honors graduates
St. Johns River State College celebrated its Spring Commencement on May 3, honoring the students who earned their associates and bachelor’s degrees or college credit certificates.
The achievements of the 500+ graduates represent generations of dreams realized, career changes, and stories of personal growth and perseverance. The diverse class of graduates included 32 dually-enrolled high school seniors. Approximately 230 students from the Palatka, Orange Park and St. Augustine campuses participated in the ceremony held at the Thrasher-Horne Center located on the Orange Park campus.
Timothy Guilbeault, of St. Johns County, was presented the Valedictorian Award. The award is given based on grade point average and difficulty of courses. The 33 year-old, U.S. Navy veteran and father of two has earned his Associate in Arts degree and will transfer to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University this fall to study aerospace engineering.
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 Orange Park campus student and U.S. Marine Corps veteran Bryan Johnson.
Johnson’s story of distress, addiction and perseverance begins with the ground invasion of Iraq. During his service, Johnson was injured twice, once by an improvised explosive device and once by a rocket explosion. Following his discharge from the military, Johnson struggled with trying to fit in with civilian life, which resulted in a drug and alcohol addiction. Johnson was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury.
Nonetheless, following rehab, Johnson was assigned his service dog, Roxy, and decided to give college another chance. This, along with volunteering his time with the Wounded Warrior Project, would be a turning point for Johnson.
Fast-forward a few years and Johnson is receiving his Associate in Arts degree. His ultimate goal is to continue his education and work with people who suffer from disorders and addictions, particularly veterans.
SJR State science instructor Karen Meyer believes Johnson embodies the College’s vision to inspire and transform lives and communities. “While I feel SJR State has transformed Bryan’s life, I also feel he has served as an inspiration to me and other students around him,” Meyers wrote in Johnson’s nomination letter. “Students like Bryan are the reason I am here. This is why I teach. Everyone deserves one opportunity, a second opportunity, or however many it takes to achieve their goals in life. In Bryan’s case, it has taken two attempts and eight years to obtain his associates degree,” Meyers said. “I am honored, humbled, and proud to have been a small part of his journey, and I look forward to the many great things I believe he will accomplish, with Roxy by his side.”
During the ceremony, SJR State President Joe Pickens introduced the commencement speaker, Clay County Commissioner and Jumperz Fun Center Owner Mike Cella. During his address, Cella shared his top 10 things to consider as students begin post college life.
“Some careers take time... go forth and succeed at your own speed,” he said. “It is impossible to live without failing at something unless you live so cautiously that you might as well have not lived at all,” Cella said, quoting J.K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter, who was rejected by publishers 12 times before finding a publisher for Harry Potter.
He also shared a quote from John Travolta, “Nobody else is paying as much attention to your failures as you are. To everyone else it is just a blip on the radar screen, so just move on.” Cella encouraged graduates to “Love what you do. Get good at it. Competency is a rare commodity these days.”
Special recognition was also given to this year’s Collier-Blocker Scholarship graduate Valentina Parra Silva. Originally from Columbia, Silva has called St. Augustine home for 12 years. She plans to continue her education at the University of North Florida, earning a degree in nutrition.
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.
Among the graduates was 47-year-old Putnam County resident Charlene Semidey. As early as the first grade, Semidey, knew she wanted to become a nurse.
Her interest was sparked by a compassionate nurse who saw beyond Semidey’s chickenpox diagnosis. “She hugged me when all of the kids at school were running away from me. To make someone feel better like that – wow!” Semidey said. “Even though she didn’t make the chickenpox go away, she made me feel better. It was the caring element.” Semidey was so impressed by the nurse’s empathy, she could not think of a better career path to follow.
Despite her initial calling, it would be a nearly 30-year journey filled with adversity and setbacks before Semidey would earn her nursing degree and prove that perseverance pays.
Semidey’s first two attempts at college - pursuing the wrong major - would result in failure and verify her fear that nursing school was indeed an impossible dream and that she would never turn her life around. However, after 9/11, Semidey said she found herself at a crossroads, wanting to try something drastically different, so she joined the military as a U.S. Army medic.
Expecting her new career would send her out to see the world and care for wounded soldiers, she was, instead, stationed at a colonoscopy clinic. While it wasn’t the adventure she had envisioned, she took pride in helping veterans and their families. “Being an Army medic brought me back to my goals,” she said. Not only did the military help Semidey build confidence and a sense of purpose, it was also where she met her husband, Carlos.
Fast-forward a few years and Semidey found that working from home as a medical transcriptionist would not only provide a way to stay at home with her first child, but also keep her connected to the medical field. Using her GI Bill, she finally began taking prerequisite classes for the nursing program.
It wasn’t until their second child was diagnosed with severe brain damage that Semidey would experience another setback. The sense of loss was so overwhelming that she put her nursing degree on hold yet again and focused on how to deal with her grief and take care of a child with disabilities. Today, Semidey regards this as a second turning point. “Despite what happened, it would be just too easy to quit,” she said.
Semidey’s scholarship biography exemplifies her tenacity: “I am so proud of my achievement. My transcript is, in a word, ugly. It has incompletes, failed semesters, multiple majors and decade-long gaps, but I have managed to finish nursing school with straight A’s, and in the end, I don’t think I would want to have it any other way. Because of the struggle, the ultimate victory is that much sweeter, and it gives me the strength and motivation to keep going in pursuit of my bachelor’s degree and beyond.”
Also among the graduates was Frankya Clark, full-time mother of three girls, full-time student and full-time employee.
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, 33, says that earning her Associate in Science degree 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 her children look up to her and are the reason she has pushed herself so hard. Clark reminds them daily of her determination to return to school - despite a few setbacks - and to make good grades. “If mommy can do it, you can, too,” she says.
“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!”
It’s been a busy year for Clark, who finally crossed the finish line, both figuratively and literally. Her final challenge this semester was to make it to graduation before the birth of her son, Asher, who is due on Monday.
Also among the graduates was Dutch Holland, 23, whose knack for numbers has served him well. While taking classes toward his Associate in Arts degree, Holland worked on campus as a math tutor. He plans to transfer to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University this fall, where he will study mechanical engineering. According to Holland, he is one of only 10 students to be selected to participate in one of ERAU’s classified autonomous boat projects.
Special recognition goes to four faculty members who are retiring this semester. Nursing professors Michelle Pate (12 years) and Sandi Dotson Kern (6 years), and chemistry professors Dr. John Parsons (14 years ) and Dr. Donald “Rick” White (5 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.
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