An artificial sunflower secured tightly to a mortarboard bobbed between strides taken by a graduate about to complete commencement exercises at East Tennessee State University Saturday. This outward symbol of a “blooming future” confirmed the achievements and sacrifices made by each of the 1,372 graduates.
“This semester, I was going seven days a week without a day off,” said Terry South of Maryville, who received a master’s degree in nursing alongside Michelle Snodgrass of Kingsport.
“It takes a lot of dedication and hard work to get here,” Snodgrass said.
Both graduated from ETSU in 1996 with bachelor’s degrees in nursing. Then, they continued to work as full-time registered nurses while simultaneously completing courses in the nurse practitioner program.
Three years of online classes and about 800 clinical hours apiece led South and Snodgrass to their career goals. Standing in full regalia while in line on the first floor hallway of the ETSU/Mountain States Health Alliance Athletic Center, the classmates finally had the opportunity to meet one another in person. Their previous correspondence had been limited to email and online discussion boards.
“If it wasn’t for online classes, I wouldn’t have been able to go back (to school),” South said.
As the anticipation of the ceremony drew near, the new nurse practitioners spoke of their excitement to begin new jobs with more responsibilities.
“I’ve just wanted to work in the family practice setting,” said Snodgrass, who was recently hired at a family practice in Bristol. “And I wanted to be able to manage patients, take care of them, build patient relationships, work alongside a good doctor and help people.”
While South and Snodgrass celebrated the culmination of a difficult three years, Spenser Jarvis reminisced about “living the college dream” during the last 2½ years.
The Maryville native transferred to ETSU from Pellissippi State Community College and lived with his best friend from high school, Nathan Heinsohn. Jarvis sang in the ETSU Chorale and was a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity.
“I’ve made lifelong friends and it all worked out really well. I wouldn’t change it,” he said.
Jarvis walked on stage Saturday to accept a bachelor’s degree in marketing from the college of business and technology. He shook the hand of ETSU President Paul Stanton, who awarded his 31,000th diploma at his last commencement ceremony as president.
Though graduate school is his next destination, Jarvis says he’s going to take a semester off to work and enjoy a bit of free time before setting out to accomplish his next goal of a master’s degree in professional communication.
The determination and ambition needed to continually reach forward was the basis of Dr. Willene Paxton’s commencement speech. She encouraged graduates to list things they wish to accomplish, while remembering to thank those who helped them along the way. She was also sure to remind them of who it was that got them to this special day.
“You showed up in the rain, in the snow and even when you would have preferred to roll over and sleep another hour,” said Paxton, the former dean of women who established the ETSU Counseling Center. “You did the work. ... You realized that to get ahead, you need an education.”
With plenty of advice in mind and a new degree in hand, each ETSU graduate left campus as an alumnus, ready to shine brightly, just like that symbolic sunflower.
“It’s all kind of fallen into place,” Jarvis said. “And now I’m ready to take that next step.”