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For some, grad glee overshadowed by debt, uncertainty

• Nov 25, 2014 at 6:37 PM

A number is often attached to a graduate’s name. While traditionally it’s been a grade point average, that number has changed in recent years, and with good reason.

“23,000,” one graduate announced.

“28 and change,” another said.

The number they’re referring to is the amount of debt they accrued to earn their degrees Saturday at East Tennessee State University’s spring commencement. With 1,887 graduates earning degrees, the next question is, “what’s next?”

What’s next for Elizabethton’s Justin Wright is to tackle the aforementioned more than $28,000 in student debt he accumulated earning his bachelor’s degree in respiratory therapy. His graduation cap reads, “You found the Wright RT,” which is related to the three job interviews he’s recently taken part in, trying to land that well-paying job out of college. Though he hasn’t landed it yet, he said once he does, he’ll be well-prepared to tackle the loans he took out.

“I feel comfortable with it,” Wright said.

Desiree Jinks feels comfortable with her $23,000 of debt, too. Having graduated with a bachelor’s in dental hygiene, the Morristown native says ETSU has set her up for a good career once she lands that first job. Because of ETSU’s stellar program, she said, the area is a little saturated, but once she passes her national boards after already having passed her state boards, she’ll be ready to make the needed money.

When asked if she’ll go back to school for a post-graduate degree, Jinks said a bachelor’s was enough for her.

“I’m going to hang on to this,” Jinks said.

She said because of the reputation of ETSU’s dental hygiene program, they have an edge over other applicants.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, who was the morning graduation’s keynote speaker, said it was schools offering those highly trained skill sets that will help graduates do well in the job market.

Hayse Harrison was one of those putting his skills to good use. He already has a job lined up in Knoxville doing cost analysis, which is just what he wanted to do in his pursuit of his bachelor’s degree in construction engineering and technology. As far as his financial future, he, like Jinks and Wright, is keeping his head up.

“I came out with quite a bit of loans, but they’re manageable,” Harrison said. “I should be able to pay them off in two years.

Saturday was the culmination of a goal Cherith A. Dugger-Roberts set out to complete years before. She said graduating with a doctorate of education has been in her sights since she began working in education 12 years ago. Currently, she holds the position of assistant principal at Holston View Elementary in Bristol and is proud of what she’s accomplished. She had the support of her husband, Preston Roberts, and parents, Donald and Sherree, who were more than thrilled to snap photos with the grad before commencement.

Many of Saturday’s graduates did so with the honor of having a GPA higher than 3.5, but only nine did so with a 4.0 average. This list of the highest graduates includes Blountville’s Katherine D. Sellers; Johnson City’s Nicholas J. Cunningham; Cleveland’s Morgan L, Isom; Greeneville’s Sarah Wennogle; Parrotsville’s Erika L. Wild; Spring Hill’s Mortan N. McFetters; and Kingsport’s Carole A. Bowker, Molly M. Ketron and Derek S. Stallard.

Saturday afternoon’s ceremony was highlighted by commencement speaker Ellen Wilhoit. The ETSU alumna is the president and chief administrative officer at the LeConte Medical Center in Sevierville. Her professional journey started just where many of the graduates found themselves Saturday, having earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1979.

Follow Tony Casey on Twitter @TonyCaseyJCP. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tonycaseyjournalist.

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