Wallace State celebrates commencement for Class of 2017

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Respiratory Therapy graduates Anna Ivey and Emma Moore wave to the crowd during commencement exercises Friday at Wallace State Community College.

HANCEVILLE – Wallace State Community College in Hanceville and President Dr. Vicki Karolewics celebrated the college’s 51st anniversary commencement at Tom Drake Coliseum Friday.  More than 500 students participated in the ceremony while nearly 1,300 earned degrees or certificates this year.

“Graduates, you all have two things in common — dreams and perseverance,” said Karolewics. “As you embark on the next chapter of your life, continue to set your aspirations high.”

Karolewics recognized a number of alumni of Wallace State and local officials who were special guests at the ceremony.  Special platform guests included Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Fairview who brought greetings to the audience; WSCC alumna Nicole Lindon, who provided the invocation; and Kelci Tuggle, Wallace State Student Government Association President, who gave the benediction.

Steve James, founder of the international relief organization, Kenya Relief, received a special Distinguished Alumni Award.  He was among five male students in the college’s first graduating nursing class of 25 students in 1975. He went on to become a certified registered nurse anesthetist with a successful career spanning 30 years in the field before retiring to devote more time to Kenya Relief.

KenyaRelief.org, which began with a small orphanage in Migori, Kenya, has grown to serve nearly 200 children today, many who continue to be orphans of AIDS. The organization has expanded to include a private K-7 elementary school, and the Kenya Relief Academy, which now educates 500 students each year with a waiting list to serve more. Kenya Relief’s Brase Vision and Medical Clinic, the most modern medical facility in the area, has treated more than 115,000 patients to date with thousands more served each year.

James told the audience “I have three things I want to say. Number one is to do it. Take small steps; those lead to bigger ones. That’s what I do. Number two, our impact in Kenya is profound. It’s visible, it’s measurable, and it’s palpable, but it’s been a labor of love, filled with professional and personal failures, so you can expect that, many of them, welcome them, but preserve. Number 3, invest wisely, focus on your strengths, do not spend all your time fixing your weaknesses, that’s why god gives us community. Surround yourself with good people. You have been given gifts and you should use them. Use your strengths to go out at do, and fail, and do some more.”

Wallace State has educated hundreds of thousands of students since opening its doors in 1966, and tens of thousands have had degrees conferred. The college produces more graduates than any other institution in the Alabama Community College System and is known for its reputation of excellence as one of the most outstanding community colleges in the nation.

In her remarks, Karolewics, as has become her tradition, shared the stories of several students who represent the broad spectrum of the community college mission and the student experience at Wallace State.

“Today, more than ever, we need to be reminded of the promise of our great country and responsibility to serve each other. Our guiding principle is to put students first in all that we do.  But really, these graduates have set the best example of that in their service to each other. They lift each other up, and are willing to share their strengths and their stories — some quite difficult — to inspire and assist their classmates,” she said as she recognized the following:

Angie Moody

As far back as she can remember, Angie Moody always wanted to be nurse. When she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, a nurse was her consistent reply. Tonight, she’s one step closer to her goal as a graduate of Wallace State’s nursing program, but the road wasn’t an easy one or a short one for her. Luckily, with her own determination and encouragement from her instructors and family, she persevered. Angie began nursing school at another Alabama community college shortly after she graduated high school, but that was put on hold. In the meantime, she had two children and, after the birth of her second child at the age of 21, she decided to return to school and enrolled at Wallace State. That was about 15 years ago. During her second semester at Wallace State, she began the process of divorce from an abusive husband and had to drop out of school. At that time, she told her instructors what was going on in her life and they said she could come back when things settled down. Angie never forgot that.

After remarrying and receiving encouragement from her new husband to return to nursing school, Angie started making plans to enroll again. But once again, her plans were put on hold when she was diagnosed with avascular necrosis in her hips, and had to have both hips replaced. All the while, she told her doctor he had to fix her, because she was going to be a nurse. Then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Luckily, she was diagnosed in the early stages and, after chemo and other treatments, has been cancer free for three years. Angie said as soon as she was given the all clear she got her ducks in a row and applied for nursing school again. Tonight, she graduates with a high GPA and represents her class as its vice president. She plans to continue her education in hopes of being a nurse educator one day, knowing her hips won’t hold up to long rounds on a hall for very long.

She’s already been practicing. Each big test, she invites students to her house to study – and sometimes they move in for days at a time to get through it.  She’s been a mentor, tutor, supporter to so many.

Angie really wasn’t too keen on sharing the personal details of her life, but she wanted her instructors to know that the things they say to students stick with them, that if they ever get another student like her in their office who feel like they want to give up or that they have no other choice, to use her story as an example that they can go on. “You, along with a couple of other key people, helped me hold on to my dream,” Angie told them. And they share equal admiration for her.  When asked what students to spotlight, she was a unanimous choice!

Wallace State Athletes

These scholar-athletes, along with members of our men’s and women’s golf and baseball teams who are headed to competitions this weekend, have represented us well this year.

Our softball team is once more ACCC champion, and will by vying for a third national championship in Utah in a few weeks. Our men’s tennis team, in its first year back in action, won the Alabama Community College Conference championships and will be headed to Texas next week. Clint Watson, who was Wallace State’s first tennis signee and one of our top players this year, was among the singles and doubles winners at the ACCC tournament. Clint was already enrolled at WSCC when we announced we were restarting tennis. Wallace State is bringing back cross country teams next year, and hoping to find more talent like him. Wallace State’s women’s golf team also made history this season winning the Alabama Community College Conference (ACCC)/Region 22 tournament in just its second season. They will be competing at the National Tournament in Georgia in a few days. The men’s golf team also advanced to the NJCAA tournament, with Wallace State’s Chip Willoughby earning low medalist honors at the District 4 Championship. Their national tournament takes place in Kansas next week. Our volleyball team also won the ACCC Championship this year, their 8th straight, and our cheerleaders placed third in the nation in their national competition.

All of our teams performed very well this season, and they were just as committed in the classroom. Each year, our scholar-athletes and teams are recognized individually and collectively with academic honors by the NJCAA. And they are community servants, spending time at local nursing homes and with school children, even using basketball for community outreach in Dominican Republic, as our men’s basketball team did a Thanksgiving ago.

Caleb Woods

Caleb Woods goes quietly and unassumingly about being extraordinary.  It seems when you have 9 siblings, you learn that you are never going to get all the attention. Tonight, though, Caleb’s family is here to celebrate with him, and he’s got the spotlight. Caleb came to Wallace State from Phenix City, where as a high school student, he ran his own egg production and rabbit rearing business.  In fact, it was the Poultry Science 2 + 2 partnership with Auburn University that drew Caleb to Wallace State. You might guess that he grew up on a farm. But no, Caleb’s mother and father both served in the military and the family moved around a lot early on. As a child, Caleb first encountered a sebright bantam chicken at a flea market shop and thought it would make a good pet. Once he had a chicken of his own, he began to see the possibilities that would result from adding hens. Soon enough, he was taking orders for eggs from the community. His father, who had by then started a renovation business, taught him skills, like welding, to help him build the facilities and equipment he needed to make the business efficient and successful. That same work ethic has served him well in college. Here he spends much of his free time working to pay his own college expenses, while also maintaining a 4.0 GPA, serving as a Student Government Association senator, and a member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. And he’s a Who’s Who recipient. Caleb will be transferring to Mississippi State to study Poultry Science with a focus on Pharmaceutical Medicine and Nutrition. With three university and departmental scholarships and a PTK scholarship, he’s getting a full ride.

Josh Murphree

Josh Murphree graduates from our Sustainable Agriculture program tonight, with a focus on gaining a better understanding and helping improve practices of traditional agrarian communities in Latin America. This is Josh’s second time through Wallace State. Now 36, he initially took classes for transfer on the way to a teaching degree from Athens State in 2004. Throughout his adult life, he has continually been involved with ministry work and, in 2008, he decided to transition to a lifelong commitment of ministry with his church's international sending organization. He assumed a role with his wife and children as missionaries, serving the Quechua peoples of Peru. Along the way, Josh realized one of the best ways to gain insight into the worldview and way of life of the people he was working with, was to live and work as much like them as possible. While living remotely in Peru, Josh hiked miles to get to villages where he worked with the Quechua people, who are subsistence farmers who depend on their crops for livelihood. Josh learned more about the people and related to them as they planted wheat together, dug potatoes together, and shared meals together.

He knows that understanding agriculture is essential for his type of work. So, after living seven years in Peru, Josh, and his family of four, moved back to Cullman, with a plan to work on a Master’s degree. However, he chose to enroll in Wallace State’s Horticulture/Agricultural Production program in order to gain needed technical skills for future ministry to people with agricultural needs. This degree in Agribusiness/Horticulture and certificate in Sustainable Agriculture will help him to better associate with the people he works with across the globe. He will use the skills he has learned to help indigenous peoples find agricultural solutions in difficult growing environments. After he graduates tonight, Josh and his family are planning to move to a different location in the mountainous tropical rain forest of Middle America, where they will be working with another indigenous group, another isolated agrarian community, similar to the Quechua of Peru. There they will continue to use agriculture as a tool in community development.

James Stephens

If you learned that this graduate is a respected community servant, a decorated Veteran, and a law enforcement officer with a reputation for compassion, would you ever guess that he was a missing person for 18 years, abducted as a one year old by his father, kept in hiding and on the run until he was 19, physically, sexually and psychologically abused, and never allowed to attend school?

He didn’t learn to read until he was 10, learned math and spelling from relatives on the occasions he visited them, and finally, at 18 was allowed to take GED classes one night a week at the urging of his cousin, who was also planning to enroll. They practiced math problems at night over a transistor radio. Though he had been told repeatedly by his father that he was stupid, he made a hobby of reading the encyclopedia, and he passed the exam on the first try. Throughout childhood, James lived in tents, foxholes dug by his father, in a brush pile in a field for months, in campers and barns, in Alabama and across the country. They lived on the $90 a month his father received from the VA, often on the verge of going hungry.

At 19, he was allowed to go to the St. Clair County Sheriff’s department and report, in a scripted way, that he was alive. Then he set about learning to drive. He had an overwhelming desire to serve others, to contribute to a greater good, which was sparked after seeing American soldiers fighting on the nightly news on a portable black and white TV in their camper one night, and he thought it would be useful to have a driver's license.

The first airplane James ever flew in was the one he jumped out of during paratrooper training. He went on to serve two tours of duty in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division. After 3 years of active duty, he continued his service in the Reserves, which he still does today, and he became first a correctional officer and later a Blount County sheriff’s deputy, completing APOST certification with the Jefferson County Police Academy along the way and rising to the rank of corporal, and now Oneonta police officer. His desire to do more and to advance in his career, however, meant that he needed an education.  He had GI funds available for college.  When he enrolled at Wallace State, that was the first formal classroom experience he had ever had. He never made excuses but lacked confidence in his abilities. In fact he was scared to death.  He had no idea what he was supposed to already know – that everyone else would know, he was afraid he’d seem foolish, he had never learned to study or even, he thought, how to learn properly.  But with the encouragement of instructor Thea Hall, he flourished.

James never told many people he met about his story till recently. Now he sees it as an opportunity to inspire others. If he can graduate from college, he says, anyone can. And he doesn’t plan to stop here. He has aspirations of earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and we know he will. And with a loving wife, a son who’s four, and another on the way, he has a lot to look forward to.

We thank you, James for your continuing service to our country as a veteran, and thank you for sharing your remarkable story of not just survival, but redemption and hope. Truly, if anyone has doubts about whether they can make it in college, let James be your inspiration.  He received a standing ovation from his classmates when his story was shared.

Reagan Short

As president of her Fast Track Academy class, Reagan has truly been a servant leader, helping the faculty and staff and encouraging her classmates. She has made the President’s List and Dean’s List consistently and she is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa and Mu Alpha Theta Honor societies. An accomplished horsewoman, Reagan has always loved animals and thought she would become a vet one day. After spending the last couple of years volunteering at Lee’s Veterinary Clinic, she still loves it, and so, after completing a degree in Animal and Dairy Science at Mississippi State University, where she will receive $18,500 in scholarships this fall, she plans to enroll in vet school.

Reagan represents a group of highly motivated high school students, who have pursued college degrees and transfer credit, as high school students.  83 students graduated from our Fast Track Academy and Fast Track for Industry programs with certificates earlier this week.  29 are here with us tonight, including 25 receiving an associate in science, associate in arts or associate in applied science degree, and four others receiving short term certificates in career technical programs.  Combined, the graduating class of Fast Track students has earned more than $1.2 million in scholarships and counting.  These ambitious, motivated students have not only saved their parents lots of money, they will enter the workforce one to two years earlier than their peers.

Special Recognition

Special presentations were made to Bryan Holmes, a General Studies student from Hartselle, for the Presidential Award for Academic Excellence; to Emmanuel Reynoso Arce, an Engineering Technology student from Arab, for the Presidential Award for Technical Excellence; and to Donald Wayne May, a Medical Laboratory Technology student from Jasper, for the Presidential Award for Health Excellence. These awards go to students of superior achievement in each area and are the highest honors presented at graduation.

Dr. Tomesa Smith, executive vice president, gave special recognition to students who were wearing medals and pins received during the college’s Honors Night for program excellence, leadership, and service, as well as recognizing those chosen for Who’s Who in American Junior Colleges, members of Phi Theta Kappa honor society, Sigma Kappa Delta English honorary society, Mu Alpha Theta mathematics honorary society, and honor graduates with GPAs of at least 3.5 or higher. She also recognized veterans in the student body and in the audience.

Music was provided by the Wallace State Concert Choir and Symphonic Band.

The Wallace State Coliseum seats approximately 6,000 and was filled to capacity for the event.