Cameron University will honor the class of 2009 during its Centennial Commencement ceremony at 7:30 p.m., Friday, May 8, at Cameron Stadium in Lawton, with guest speaker Al Roker of "Today." For many of the graduates, commencement represents more than the final step in their collegiate career. Included below are stories of family celebration, determination and personal accomplishment of just a few of our Centennial graduates.
In 1973, Marinna Edwards aspired to be the first member of her generation in her family to get a college degree. After enrolling at Cameron, she tried to balance raising a family with a class schedule, putting family first and heading to the classroom whenever her busy schedule would allow. She might take two classes one semester, three the next, but ultimately, with six children to raise, she had to put her college dreams on hold.
Over the past few years, seeing her children succeed in college allowed Marinna to celebrate their accomplishments in higher education. Her son, James Figueroa, graduated from CU in 2008 with dual degrees in business administration and history.
"I sent my kids through college," she says, "and I decided I had to continue on. I made it a goal to finish my education for my six grandkids. I want them to know that anything is possible."
Returning to college hasn't been the easiest road for Marinna, whose chronic health problems have resulted in seven surgeries in the past five years. Lupus might slow her down physically, but it hasn't put a dent in her drive and determination to get her degree.
"I want to thank my teachers who have helped me," she says. "They've been very patient and understanding. The math lab and the computer lab have given me the tools I needed to finish my requirements. The whole Cameron staff has been very supportive, and I really do thank everybody."
Marinna will receive her Associate of Science in Business at this year's commencement, the same night that her son James will receive his MBA. She credits her family and friends for inspiring her to fulfill her long-held dream of a college degree. Having earned her Associate's degree, she's not finished with her education yet, as she's just two semesters short of a baccalaureate degree.
"Once I make it to this commencement," she says with a laugh, "I'll be back at next year's getting my bachelor's."
The forces that drive Lawton native Guy Narcomey - family, his Native American heritage, and a passion for running - have come together at Cameron University. The Comanche/Caddo/Seminole/Chiricahua Apache, who will receive his baccalaureate degree in Health and Physical Education, is a third-generation CU athlete whose long-term goal is to make a difference in the lives of other young Native Americans. This fall, he'll begin pursuit of a Master's degree in Education.
"I want to teach and coach track at a Native American institution - someplace like the Riverside Indian School in Anadarko or a tribal college like Haskell University in Kansas," he says. "I want to take the skills I've learned at Cameron and help my people."
A track star in high school, Guy embarked on his higher education at a junior college in Texas. Spurred by friends who recognized his talent for long distance running, he contacted CU's cross-country coach, Matt Aguero, and made the Cameron team as a walk-on.
"I didn't realize until I came to Cameron how much I'm tied to this school," he says. "It's an honor for me to go to Cameron. My grandfather, Ozzie Parton, was a championship boxer here in the early 1940s; my uncle Art Parton played football here. Now I'm a runner at Cameron - a third generation athlete."
Guy had the opportunity to document his love of running by writing and producing a short video for the PBS "American Experience" REELNATIVE project, which was looking for individual Native American stories from across the country. In the video, he relates his passion for running to his Comanche heritage, drawing upon tribal stories of the messenger runner. Guy also created the illustrations that accompany the narration. The video can be viewed at www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/weshallremain/reel_native (underneath the large, main box, click on "show in grid," scroll down to the 20th video, the icon with the bright yellow, sunlit background with a silhouette of a runner).
Autumn Pierson has a passion - children. "I've always loved kids," the Mangum resident says. "I love watching them learn."
For most of her life, she planned on becoming a teacher. After receiving an associate's degree in pre-education from Western Oklahoma State College in Altus, though, she changed her focus and now has her sights set on a career in child protective services.
She enrolled at Cameron in Fall 2006 as a Criminal Justice major, initially enrolling in on-line classes to avoid the two-hour commute to campus and later transitioning to the classroom. Autumn believes Criminal Justice will prepare her for the realities of working in a field full of legalities. She received her Associate in Applied Science from CU in May 2008.
"Because of the Criminal Justice courses, you know the laws," she says. "The reason I kept pursuing my degree was because I wanted to know the legal rights of children. Knowing the laws and knowing how the system works help you better understand the job in child protective services. There were some classes where I thought, ‘Wow! What'd I get myself into!' But in the end, it's all worth it."
On May 9, she'll receive her baccalaureate degree in Criminal Justice.
Overcoming challenges is nothing new to Mohammad Siddiki, who will receive his Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics during Commencement. While on active duty in the U.S. Army and then again while in the Army Reserve, he had to put his education on hold for deployments to the Middle East. But the time away from the classroom didn't deter the Bangladesh native, despite the obstacles.
"It's very difficult to get back to the classroom after such a long period," says Mohammad. "Unless you're a super genius, you forget all the material. After I came back, I had to take Calculus III - and while I was taking it, I was basically studying Calculus I and II at the same time, because I had forgotten so much."
Yet he never considered halting his degree program. "Education is so important," Mohammad says. "I'm not at a finishing point yet. Finishing this degree opened my eyes to do more, so I'll probably go to graduate school."
Juggling a college degree program with a career in the military and a family called for some sacrifices, Mohammad says. "Many times, by the time I got home at night, my kids were already asleep. But my family has always been behind me - my wife and two children. Whenever I would get I frustrated, they'd say, ‘Keep going - don't quit.'"
Mohammad is eager to offer advice to others who may be facing obstacles that interfere with their plans for college. "Never, ever stop what you're doing as far as your education goes," he advises. "There were times when I didn't have a chance to take a class. When I came back from Iraq, the first thing I did was go to the education center on the base to see what was available. I knew that one day I would finish my degree. Basically, if you just keep thinking about it, you will achieve it."
Before settling in Lawton/Fort Sill, the Army veteran had the opportunity to pursue his college degree while posted to various military bases. "I was in so many states, so many places," he explains. "I attended two colleges in Hawaii, and another in a different state. I can see there's a big difference between Cameron and other universities. The academic standard, the environment, the teaching quality that we have at Cameron is so incredible. Here, the professors are tough, they do not compromise - and that's what I want in the classroom. That's what you need when you want to learn something."
He also cites another reason that makes Cameron stand apart. "Here, there's a relationship between student and teacher that you do not see anywhere else. The professors mentor you in such a way that they inspire you to come back. The relationship between student and teacher is very special here."
When Peter Svajlen picked up a set of golf clubs at the age of 14, he knew he'd found his passion. As his talent developed, he aspired to compete on the collegiate level. The only problem was that in his native country of Slovakia, golf was a relatively young sport, with no coaches and few golf courses. So while attending high school in Tennessee as a foreign exchange student, he started researching U.S. colleges and universities where golf was a priority. Cameron was one of four universities that made his cut.
Then his game hit a slump, and he almost gave up that dream. "I was ready to quit golf," he admits. "My game was suffering and I seriously thought about quitting, right before I got here. Then I came to Cameron, and suddenly things changed."
Peter credits longtime CU coach Jerry Hrnciar for turning his game around. "He knows the game, he knows what he's talking about," Peter says. "He's been playing golf for so long. He's a great coach. All you have to do is listen to him - 95 percent of the time, he's right. Working with him made the difference."
Listening to Hrnciar has certainly paid off, as the Aggie Golf Team won the Lone Star Conference Championship in 2008, due, in part, to Peter's spectacular performance on the links. This year, though, his game was sidetracked because of a wrist injury, limiting his participation on the team to only two tournaments. Prior to the injury, he placed 15th in the Annual World University Golf Championship. Even though his Aggie season was curtailed, he is still the top ranked golfer in Slovakia.
Peter excels in the classroom as well as on the golf course, making either the Dean's List or the President's List every semester. He'll receive a Bachelor of Business Administration degree during Commencement and will return to campus in the fall to begin pursuit of his MBA. There's a chance he might be back on the golf team, pending an NCAA decision granting a medical deferment due to his injury.
He's appreciative of the quality education he's receiving at CU, given what he's heard from his Slovakian friends about higher education in his homeland. "From what my friends tell me, college there is just books and lectures," he says. "There isn't the chance to gain practical knowledge. Here, through the use of case studies, I've learned how to overcome business problems."
He singles out two CU faculty members for having the greatest impact on him. "Dr. (John) Masters and Dr. (Aubree) Helvey are hands down the best teachers. They give example of situations that happened to them, which makes you remember it better. They are simply the best."
Peter aspires to play golf professionally, hoping to one day make the European tour. He's played in several European tournaments against some of the top-ranked amateurs in the world, logging some second place finishes and earning a reputation as a player to watch.
One thing is certain: once he finds success as a professional golfer and corporate sponsorships start coming his way, Peter Svajlen will have the tools necessary to manage the business side of his career, thanks to the knowledge he gained while attending Cameron University.
May 5, 2009