ORANGE PARK – St. Johns River State College recently celebrated its Fall Commencement, honoring the students who earned their associates and bachelor’s degrees or college credit certificates.
More than 150 students from the Orange Park, Palatka and St. Augustine campuses participated in the ceremony held at the Thrasher-Horne Center.
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 grade point average. She is continuing her education at the University of Florida to pursue her bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering. She hopes to ultimately work in neural engineering or genetics.
Among the Clay County 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 his transition into civilian life, he enrolled in business courses at SJR State. Although he originally considered teaching to be his dream job, and he thoroughly enjoyed training Iraqi soldiers during his active duty, he did question whether teaching was the right choice.
It wasn’t until he volunteered at his son’s school and watched the delight of learning in his own child’s face that he decided to return to his initial career path and earn his bachelor’s degree in early childhood education. “I would see him 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.
Also graduating was Andy Rodriguez, who after a 10-year gap, decided to return to SJR State and complete his Associate in Arts degree that he initially started right out of high school. The difference this time around was that he felt "ready" – unlike the time before when he was simply going through the motions at his parents’ request.
Rodriguez now plans to become a nutritionist after his experience with bariatric surgery. “Through that my eyes were opened to the world of nutrition,” Rodriguez said. “I want to be a bariatric dietitian and help those wanting to make that life-changing surgery, share my story and steps with them, and help ensure they, too, can attain success.”
Communications professor Dawn Bergeron, who taught Rodriquez in 2009 and in 2019 said, "I think it takes a lot of courage and determination to “come back” after so many years have passed. He has graduated, and I am so proud to have had him as my student."
Former Viking baseball player Jeremiah Aut also returned to SJR State to complete his degree following a decade long gap.
When his now-deceased father became severely ill, Aut left the College to assist in his care. Aut’s challenges would continue with three shoulder surgeries, progressive hearing loss, and the responsibility of nursing his mother through two major surgeries. “Earning my associate degree is just the first step toward fulfilling a promise I made to myself and my parents, despite the hardships my family has endured,” said Aut.
His next stop is the University of North Florida, where he plans to work on his bachelor’s degree in business administration. He hopes to own a sporting-related business one day.
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 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 the award to former mathematics professor Stephen Dennis, who retired due to Lou Gehrig disease. He was diagnosed in 2018 and retired last 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.”