Celebrating 2017 Grads
By Eric Baxter, Academic Advisor
Degrees very often are more than a fancy piece of paper. They represent years of sustained effort toward a specific end. The effort gets woven through graduates’ lifes, becoming more a part of them than they realize. Their degrees help define and refine them, and speak to their hopes and fears and dreams. Here are some of the stories behind the degrees, and the degrees that became the stories. Think of your own as well. Celebrate your success, and be proud of your achievement.
Melissa Gillespie, B.S. in Nursing
Melissa Gillespie lives by a simple mantra — you find a way or make a way. And this has served the 38-year-old mother of three, wife of a Navy sailor, well in life.
“People tell me things can’t be done, and I just go ahead and do them anyway,” Gillespie said.
So when people told her it would be impossible to go back to school for a bachelor’s in nursing while simultaneously going through an internship to become an operating room nurse, she simply went ahead and did it.
“I was tired of stopping nursing programs and then starting them again,” she said of her past attempts to complete her degree being stymied by her family’s frequent moves as her husband, Quinton, was reassigned.
SNHU offered her the variability and flexibility needed, and the university was military-friendly.
“It’s a very well-developed program, and it will allow me to branch off in a number of ways,” she said.
Accomplishing the degree in the face of odds most people would not tackle, let alone consider, is a testament to Gillespie’s dogged determination and a certain fearlessness. She grew up with “bitterly divorced” parents — a father who was a mechanic and a mother who was a dog groomer who later became a nurse.
“I saw nursing as a portable degree,” she said. “And it was a degree with a high return on investment.”
As importantly, nursing spoke to a sense of independence and the assurance that if things did go south, she could provide for herself and her family.
“My husband will always be there, but bad things happen all the time,” she said. “I feel better contributing financially to my household.”
Gillespie, herself former military, started her degree program in November 2015. For much of that time her husband was deployed and away from home. She managed to juggle children, home, a demanding job with variable hours and school.
“You just get the job done,” she said.
And getting that job done required intelligence, will and tenacity, and the certain understanding that having a degree does not mean you’re assured of an easy future.
“I’ve stayed true to what I think I can do,” she said.
When the cap and gown are put away, and she’s back on the nursing floor, she’ll think about her options with the certain unshakeable knowledge that whatever they are she will achieve them.
“You find a way, or make a way,” she said.
Rachel Kaplan, B.A. in Communication-Public Relations
A degree can lead you places, but generally the destination is more abstract — a better job, a better career, a better future. Rachel Kaplan’s bachelor’s degree in public relations means a better future, but it also includes palm trees, beaches and a more laid-back attitude.
“Having that (degree) will make me stand out,” Kaplan said. “Good customer service is a lost art, and between the degree and my experience, well, it all came together.”
“It all” is a curious mix of the good and the challenging, of pasts and futures, and one item on the bucket list.
The bucket list item was a trip to the Florida Keys. Three days in she and her husband, Erik, realized this was the place for them. Shortly after, their life started to coalesce around the goal of living in the southernmost part of the United States.
Early on in life Kaplan’s daughter, Rylee, 10, discovered a strong talent for swimming. Rylee trained briefly with a few of the more prominent coaches in the world, based in the Keys, and was tagged as a possible Olympic hopeful. It was also Rylee who helped inspire Kaplan to return to school.
“I couldn’t tell her to go get a degree if I didn’t have one,” said Kaplan.
SNHU came into play as the source of a possible degree when Rylee became enamored of the big blue SNHU bus. Enrollment became an almost foregone conclusion, but one with an unexpected side effect.
“As a parent you put your personal life on the backburner for your children,” said Kaplan. “But I found getting the degree was very empowering. I was doing this for myself.”
Yet within herself was a possible growing challenge. In 2011 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and the doctors she was seeing at the time were not positive about the outcome. Undaunted, she researched and sought second opinions. Finally, a specialist in Boston gave her a qualified answer.
“She gave me the green light to go ahead and live my life,” Kaplan, 43, said. “(The MS) is just a speed bump.”
Kaplan controls the worst of the symptoms with diet and avoids stress. Some days are tough. Most are fine, and she expects the move to the Keys at an as-yet-determined date will help more. In the meantime she is working with a local festival started in her hometown of Chicopee, Massachusetts, and one that she is helping to grow into one of the largest fireworks festivals in the country.
With commencement looming, she said she was a little nervous and a little sad.
“Everything has come full circle,” she said. “I just keep telling myself this can’t be happening.”
While being the rock of her family, she said she would always remember her advisor, Amy Bourgeois as being the rock for her.
“I’m strong, but having that one person (at the university) you could talk to … well, that was amazing. She’s always been there for me,” she said.
Murama Rugumanya, M.S. in Public Health
Murama Rugumanya’s youth was delineated by extremes of the human condition.
Born in Rwanda, but growing up in the Congo, Burundi and Uganda, he was exposed to war, famine, genocide and the privations caused by the seemingly endless quest in that part of the world for power and resources. Yet, in the midst of the strife, he worked with his parents, traveling missionaries, building churches and trying to help people find spiritual and physical peace.
These experiences built the philosophy he lives by today.
“At the end we need to give our share and show we can be the generation to stop the mass killing and the hatred,” Rugumanya, 38, a father of two, said. “If we don’t, (the killings and war) will happen again and again.”
Rugumanya said he sees his “share” as tending to the physical welfare of Africa’s hardest-hit residents, as well as the spiritual. With the aid of the university’s public health degree program, he has his eyes set on a more permanent return to his home continent and the establishment of clinics and better health systems, and increasing the wellness of the people there.
He credits the university with helping him toward his goals.
“(The degree program) opens up your eyes, gives you confidence and opportunities you didn’t have before,” he said.
Like many university students, he spent many nights and weekends at the kitchen table studying, missed many social events and sacrificed time with his family. Yet he felt the sacrifice was worth it.
“Online education was wonderful to do, for sure,” he said. “The one thing I regret is not having an opportunity to meet face-to-face the people I worked with and partnered with.”
Following May’s commencement he will continue working as a full-time health missionary but will set his sights on the same role in a larger sphere, seeking employment with US A.I.D. or a multinational, health-focused non-governmental organization. He will be accompanied by his wife, Grace, daughter, Ivy, and son, Jayden.
“Public health is a wonderful tool, to be able to help,” he said, adding, “I want to help others to get a better life. It will be a sacrifice for my family, but a worthy one.”
Gregory Alphonse, MBA
Gregory Alphonse grew up in tough neighborhoods in New York City and Lawrence and Lowell, Massachusetts. Sometimes it was the environment, with few opportunities and fewer jobs. But the hardest part was often the people, not the place.
“I grew up with a lot of negativity in life. It was rough childhood,” said Alphonse, 30. “People would just tell you that you couldn’t do things.”
But with conferral of an MBA degree approaching, he realized that negativity, like a cloud, might have a silver lining.
“I learned that whatever roadblock came up, I could (find) a way around it,” he said. “I’ve always kept pushing, always kept the sense that everything I put my mind to I could work out.”
While determined, he said he lacked a specific focus. He had a bachelor’s degree in management and marketing, a solid job in the health field and a loving daughter. He was casting about, looking for a little direction, and a friend mentioned SNHU’s graduate programs.
“It seems with every class I learned more about life,” Alphonse said.
After a few classes he knew what he wanted to do — he had his purpose.
He had proven in his jobs that he was excellent with people, that he had a capable and agile mind. He had proven the naysayers from his youth wrong time and again.
“(A master’s degree) is a serious degree — it’s on whole different level,” he said. “I rose to the challenge. That makes me feel good.”
Alphonse will be the first to admit determination gets you far, but you can go farther still with help.
SNHU instructors provided wisdom, knowledge and insight. His mentors, good friends and family helped clarify his vision. His academic advisor, Zach Buote, helped keep his degree in perspective.
Last year Alphonse was sidelined by a bad motorcycle accident. He said he lost a lot of his motivation, including returning to finish his degree, started more than two years prior.
“Zach, my friends and family … they all pushed me to go back, to finish the degree,” he said. “And here I am.”
While proving the people from his youth wrong held a certain satisfaction, the youth he is concerned with now is his daughter, Sadie, 9.
“My daughter deserves the best future I can provide for her,” he said. “I want her to know she can always achieve her dreams, even it’s going to take a while … the effort will lead to a satisfaction in your soul.”
Sheree KaneGraber, B.A. in General Studies
Dreams and ambitions are rarely simple. They comprise hopes and fears and uncertainty. They are delayed by setbacks and challenges, and they are picked from the threads of a life rather than being the whole cloth.
Sherree Beth Bena KaneGraber has woven the threads of her dreams and ambitions through a life that gave her constant surprises, as well as constant inspiration. This May she’ll finish one of two paths of study that will lead her to becoming a rabbi and a leader in her Jewish community.
“I’ve wanted this (bachelor’s) degree for a very long time,” KaneGraber said.
Her general studies degree completion will enable her to become a fully matriculated student in the Academy for Jewish Religion, the seminary where she will complete her rabbinical studies, and head her own congregation in the future.
As happens with many working adults, her early degree goals were sidelined by life at large. She got married, had children and decided to stay home to raise them, a sound decision in her eyes. But as her oldest approached the start of college, she wanted to return as well.
KaneGraber grew up with more than a passing interest in her religion and heritage. She learned to read Hebrew, studied the Talmud, became a cantor and leads services.
“There is a powerfulness and spiritualness (to leading a service),” she said.
Her growing interest in Judaism led to her teaching and tutoring others, then finally to the decision to pursue the goal of being a rabbi. But to do that she needed a four-year degree. The academy offered a special dispensation to those 50 years old and older: You could pursue the studies without a degree but needed to finish the four-year degree before matriculating at the seminary.
The general studies program ended up being perfect for fulfilling the academy’s requirement.
“Now I see it as the best thing I could do,” she said. “(The university has) a nice array of classes and it all fits into what I’m doing (for my rabbinical studies).”
Following the end of her last class at SNHU she also will achieve another, albeit smaller, goal — she will reclaim her dining room table — currently the base of studies for her two programs. Then a break, then she will return to the academy to complete her rabbinical studies.
“There are so many people I’d like to meet in person,” KaneGraber said of the end of her time at SNHU. “While I’ve never met them, I feel like I know them. I think that says a lot about the university and what it means to people.”