SJR State honors graduates


St. Johns River State College celebrated its Fall Commencement on December 13, honoring the students who earned associates and bachelor’s degrees or college credit certificates for the 2018 summer and fall terms.

The commencement represented generations of dreams realized, career changes and stories of personal growth and perseverance – more than 600 success stories for students from the Orange Park, Palatka and St. Augustine campuses.

More than 150 students participated in the ceremony held at the Thrasher-Horne Center located on the Orange Park campus.

This year’s ceremony included the first class to complete the College’s new practical nursing program. Fourteen students completed the year-long program and are now eligible to apply for the state board examination for licensed practical nursing.

Carlee Correia

During the ceremony, Carlee Correia, 19, of St. Johns County, was presented with the Valedictorian Award. The award is given based on grade point average and difficulty of courses. Correia earned the majority of her Associate in Arts degree credits as a dual enrollment student. She plans to transfer to the University of North Florida next year.

A portion of the ceremony was dedicated to presenting the Paul “Dee” Causey President’s Award. The award was created to honor the memory of an SJR State alumnus whom President Joe 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.

Wendell Chester

The fall commencement recipient is Wendell Chester.

According to SJR State instructor Jay Engelbrecht, who nominated Chester for the award, “Courage is Wendell’s superpower. It’s how he transforms pain into joy.”

Chester, a 57-year-old Putnam County resident, has endured abandonment, abuse, depression, illness and injury, only to emerge with a special love for children. Raised by his grandparents after his mother died, Chester has developed a unique connection with children who endure hardships. “I am a foster parent of two boys… and a product of the system myself,” Chester said.

Earning his Associate in Arts degree has played a key role in filling a void in Chester’s life.

“I’ve lived my life, working one job for 25 years. The one thing that was missing was a college degree,” Chester said. “I tried it before as a teenager right out of high school, but I failed. Now that I have two boys, I am determined to be a good role model for them… and prove to myself that I can do it.”

Wendell’s next step includes pursuing a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, where he will ultimately teach or counsel children. “Whatever I end up doing, it has to be with children,” he said.

Samanth Ennis

Among the graduates was Samantha Ennis. While working as a registration clerk in the emergency room, the 21-year-old realized the more she observed the EMTs and paramedics in action, the more she considered changing careers. So she did. Ennis has spent the last four months in SJR State’s emergency medical technician program preparing to treat patients with various medical and trauma conditions.

I just went for it,” Ennis said. “Now that I’m done, I’m glad I did it. Hard work pays off.”

In addition to earning her certificate, the EMT program also took Ennis on a journey of self-discovery. “I learned that I’m a harder worker than I thought,” she chuckled. “I learned that if I put my mind to something, I can actually do it. And I learned I’m really good with people.”

What Ennis enjoyed most about the program was the opportunity to help others. “I was helping people more than I thought I actually was,” she said about a recent EMT ride-along. “When you’re talking with family members of people who are having the worst possible day, they are so thankful for you to even smile at them and hold their hand. Just knowing you’re making a difference was amazing.”

Ennis plans to continue her education with SJR State’s paramedic program while working as an EMT or an emergency room technician.

Lori Slaven

Also among the graduates was Lori Slaven, 54, who is the first in her family to graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree. Slaven said her entire family has provided encouragement throughout her collegiate journey. “They could not be more supportive, more proud of their wife, mommy and nanna,” she said.

Slaven said earning her bachelor’s degree in organizational management definitely played a role in attaining her new job as executive director for the county’s domestic violence shelter, the Lee Conlee House. “A formal education is key to being in this type of position,” she said.

While Slaven said the decision to go back to school was outside of her comfort zone, she didn’t let that stand in the way of earning the necessary credentials to advance her career. “You can’t let fear get in the way,” Slaven said. “When I first went back, it was intimidating and a little scary… but all the students, of all age ranges, were so kind. They were so welcoming.”

Marlene Lagasse

During the ceremony, Pickens honored Trustee Marlene Lagasse with a Trustee of Distinction award. Pickens thanked Lagasse for her service as a board member since 2014 and for fulfilling her duty, with a steadfast commitment of time, exceptional leadership and service, beyond the expiration of her term.

Former legislator Tony Hill was the commencement speaker. Hill served as a House Representative, District 14, from 1992 to 2000, and as Senator for District 1, from 2002 to 2012. Hill currently serves as a field representative for Congressman Al Lawson, Jr.

During his address, Hill encouraged the graduates to “bring it all,” in all endeavors, from this day forth. “Every time you step up to a challenge, you need to bring it all,” Hill said. “We live in a challenged world, and you’ve got to be prepared.”

Hill’s five tips for success was well-received by the audience.

  1. Trust God.
  2. Be stronger than your peer group.
  3. Out work your opponent.
  4. Set goals.
  5. When the why is big enough, the how will take care of itself.
Tony Hill

Hill closed with the African Proverb of the lion and gazelle. “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion… Every morning a lion wakes up and knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle… It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or gazelle. When the sun comes up, you better start running.”

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.



Susan Kessler
Director of Public Relations and Publications
(386) 312-4020