SJR State honors graduates
St. Johns River State College celebrated its Fall Commencement on December 19, honoring the students who earned their associates and bachelor’s degrees or college certificates.
The achievements of the 600+ graduates represent generations of dreams realized, career changes, and stories of personal growth and perseverance. More than 150 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.
Among those graduating was Emily Norrey, 50, who initially became a licensed practical nurse after losing her 8-year-old son Phillip to a devastating disease. “It was my goal that no one else would lose their child to juvenile diabetes,” she said.
After working 10 years as an LPN and surviving a breast cancer scare, she relocated to Crescent City with her family with the intent to retire; however, Norrey grew restless and enrolled in SJR State’s LPN to RN bridge program to earn her associates degree in nursing.
During her clinicals, Norrey was assigned to work with special needs children, which confirmed that her mission to help others was not complete. “My passion for nursing has been reignited,” she said. “I can’t wait to start giving back to the community.”
Looking back, Norrey said she was often told that everything happens for a reason. “Somedays that was hard for me to stomach… Most days I think of the good things that come from him (Phillip), with me being a nurse now,” she said.
Looking ahead, Norrey plans to enroll in the College’s bachelor of science in nursing program and continue her goal to make a difference. “Every time I touch somebody, I think of my son, and I think through my hands he’s going to live forever,” she said. “And that just means the world to me.”
Also among the graduates was Putnam County resident Steven Middlebrook, who completed his bachelor’s degree in organizational management with a specialization in health care administration.
Middlebrook said he has always been driven to make people feel better, whether it’s through his music or through health care. The 31-year-old musician/paramedic is preparing for what he calls the next stage in his life, focusing on a new career and possibly starting a family. The SJR State Hall of Fame inductee said his plans include applying to the School of Physician Assistant Studies at the University of Florida.
Among the graduates was Veteran Michael Arrington, who is trading in his Army boots for story time. When the 39-year-old father of three relocated to Clay County and continued transitioning into civilian life, he enrolled in business courses at SJR State. Although he said he thoroughly enjoyed training Iraqi soldiers during his active duty, and once considered teaching to be his dream job, he questioned whether it would be a good fit.
It wasn’t until he began volunteering at his son’s school and seeing the delight of learning in his own child’s face that he decided to return to his initial career path and begin working on his bachelor’s degree in early childhood education.
“I would see him (son) come home from school just so excited about something he learned or something he did, and I was like, I should have stayed with it,” Arrington said. “I thought, that’s it. I’m going to go back to become a teacher,” he said.
Arrington hopes to have his own second grade class next year.
A portion of the ceremony was dedicated to presenting the Paul “Dee” Causey President’s Award. Each year, the award honors the memory of the SJR State alumnus (and Crescent City native) whom SJR State 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.
President Pickens presented this year’s award to former faculty member Stephen Dennis, who retired this year due to Lou Gehrig disease. Dennis was based on the Palatka campus, and taught mathematics for seven years. He was diagnosed in 2018 and retired in June. The presentation was delivered through a video call streamed to where Dennis now resides in Ohio, where he is receiving specialized care near his family.
Pickens shared that after Dennis’ diagnosis, he was determined to stay as long as possible at SJR State, doing his life’s work - teaching students. “Throughout his decline, he never made excuses, and he never complained.” Pickens said.
Pickens continued with a letter written by SJR State’s Vice President for Academic Affairs, Melanie Brown, “We admire Professor Dennis’ pride in being an educator, and his love of mathematics. We admire his wisdom, his wit, his determination, his refusal to give up or take the easy path,” Pickens said. “He exemplifies SJR State’s Viking spirit.”
Dennis’ career includes two master’s degrees, a 25-year career in marketing – including the position of senior director of communications strategy for the PGA Tour, and changing careers to pursue his lifelong interest in teaching math to young people. Dennis taught at Pedro Menendez and Terry Parker high schools, before teaching at SJR State, where his accomplishments included developing and teaching the new course, Games for Analytical Reasoning.
During the ceremony, Jasmine Day, of Clay County, was presented the Valedictorian Award. The award is given based on grade point average and difficulty of courses. Day graduated with her Associate in Arts degree with a 4.0 GPA. She is continuing her education at the University of Florida where she is pursuing her bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering. She hopes to ultimately work in neural engineering or genetics.
President Pickens introduced the commencement speaker, Judge John Alexander, 7th Circuit Administrative Judge for Family Court. Judge Alexander is a 1974 alumnus of SJR State.
During his address, Alexander’s speech focused on how each graduate has the ability to leave a legacy and the many ways they could accomplish it. “How do you want to make a difference?” he asked. “It boils down to three things,” Alexander said. “1. Do the right thing… 2. Do things to the best of your ability… 3. Show people you care.”
“You don’t know how you’re going to be a hero, you don’t know when you’re going to be a hero, and you don’t know why you’ll be a hero, but you’ve got a chance to make a difference in someone’s life,” he said.
“We live on this earth temporarily… When you die, it all ends except the legacy you left and the difference you made in somebody else’s life… the difference you made,” he repeated. “What will be your legacy?”
A portion of the ceremony was dedicated to acknowledging retiring faculty. SJR State’s Senior Vice President Melissa Miller, J.D., recognized three faculty members for their exceptional service to students. Developmental reading and writing instructor Yvette Marie Harbison (17 years), academic advisor Paula Shepherd (16 years), and Todd Dixon, Director of Testing and Student Support (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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