Cameron University graduating class of 2015 filled with inspirational stories

Cameron University will honor the class of 2015 during its annual Commencement ceremony at 7:30 p.m., Friday, May 8, at Cameron Stadium. Actor/environmentalist Ed Begley, Jr. will deliver the Commencement address. For many, Commencement represents more than earning a degree. It serves as a personal milestone for achievement and overcoming adversity. Included below are stories of personal accomplishment of a few graduates from the class of 2015.

Lindsey Billen

Earning a degree from Cameron University is nothing new to Lindsey Billen, who will graduate with a Bachelor of Accounting. She previously earned a Bachelor of Business Administration in May 2008. Attending Cameron runs in her family, as Billen is a fourth-generation CU student.

Billen’s Cameron heritage began with her great-grandmother, Pearl Mitchell Phillips, and great-aunt, Ruby Mitchell. Both graduated from what was then Cameron State School of Agriculture in the 1920s. The Cameron legacy continued with Billen’s grandfather, James Eddie Phillips, who earned an associate degree from Cameron State Agricultural College in 1949. After earning a bachelor’s from the University of Oklahoma and a master’s from Louisiana State University, he joined the Cameron faculty as a math professor in 1967. Following his retirement in 1990, he subsequently returned as an adjunct teacher until 1998. Phillips was named as a Distinguished Alumnus in 1993 and was inducted into the Faculty Hall of Fame in 1998.

“I remember going to classes with my grandfather when I was still in grade school,” Billen says. “I sat in the back of his class or in the halls of Burch Hall while he taught. He was so well respected in the community. I keep a picture of him in my office space at work. I can’t count the times that people have come into the office and had to tell a story of how that man helped them not only in school but in life. He was selfless and gave back to his community in so many ways. I want to be just like him and help others in any way that I can. I want to use my knowledge for good just as he did.”

Phillips’ wife, Ruby Runyan Phillips, was also a Cameron graduate, earning a bachelor’s in 1973. Mr. and Mrs. Phillips were original members of President’s Partners and were charter life members of the CU Alumni Association.

With a family legacy in place, it was only natural for the next generation to attend Cameron. Billen’s mother, Polly Belle Krasser, and two uncles, Eddie Mitchell Phillips and Michael Duane Phillips, each earned bachelor’s degrees.

After graduating from Chattanooga High School in 2003 as Valedictorian, Billen initially attended Oklahoma City University, transferring to Cameron in 2006. Two years later, she earned her first CU degree. Shortly thereafter, she found employment in the Comanche County Treasurer’s Office, where she is now in charge of the official depository account for the courthouse.

“In 2013, I started to ponder on my future and career, and I realized that I was not through with my education,” Billen says. “I did some research and decided that I wanted to pursue my CPA license.”

Finding a quote from her grandfather on Cameron’s website was pivotal in Billen’s decision to return to Cameron to earn a degree in accounting. The quote reads, “Cameron’s caring teachers and administration taught that I could complete and do whatever I wanted to do.” That statement resonated with Billen, especially after she met with faculty member Bernadette Lonzanida to learn about Cameron’s accounting program.

Billen refers to Lonzanida as “one of the most enthusiastic teachers I have ever met. I could see her excitement and enthusiasm shine through her face. You could feel her want for students to be successful. As a daughter, granddaughter, and niece of educators, I know that teachers do not become teachers for the pay. They do it for their love of education and students. It takes a special person to be an educator, and I believe that Ms. Lonzanida is one of the extra special ones.”

It was through Lonzanida’s encouragement that Billen applied for – and received – the national Delta Mu Delta Scholarship.

Billen also cites Dr. Sylvia Burgess as an influence, calling Burgess “one of the sweetest, most selfless, smartest and strongest individuals that I have ever met. She loves Cameron, and, as a student, that makes me love it even more than I already do.  She puts her students first and is there to make sure we really learn the material. Her real life stories keep us listening to the material and make it so much easier to learn the concept of the material.”

In fact, Billen refers to all of the faculty members in Cameron’s accounting program as exceptional. “They all care about their students’ futures, and you can see that through their teaching. I believe that they have given me great knowledge as I set forth to prepare for the CPA exam. I believe that they will remain my lifelong influences as well as become my lifelong friends after graduation.”

Sarah Downen

Sarah Downen has always wanted to help people, an interest rooted in her mother’s career as a psychologist and social worker for the Red Cross. With the attainment of a Bachelor of Science in Psychology this May, she will complete the first step of that calling.

“My mom's experience with autistic children and children from abused homes that needed not only support but a healthy new start sparked my interest in helping people,” Downen says. “I started to work at a local kindergarten with children of special needs and frequently visited my mom at work. I was always very curious and wanted to know what makes us human and see how we are internally designed. I shadowed a pathologist in my hometown of Rostock, Germany, during the last two years of high school.”

Downen’s childhood experiences fostered a deep interest in “how the mind and brain work, how we can help those that suffer from mental and physical disabilities, and how we can find a cure.”

She initially wanted to major in molecular biology and minor in chemistry - a pre-med track – so she could apply to medical school. Yet that major resulted in numerous classes that focused on non-human subjects, such as zoology and botany. During a conversation with Dr. Mary Dzindolet, chair of the Cameron Department of Psychology, Downen honed in on her ultimate calling.

“I told her how my real passion is helping people,” Downen says. “I still want to go to medical school and I will still fulfill my pre-med requirements, but I want to learn more about human development, the human psyche, and mental disorders since mental pathologies were what interested me in medicine in the first place.”

Changing her major to psychology in Fall 2012, Downen was able to glimpse the subjects that interested her: bio-psychology, cognitive psychology, and sensation and perception.

“I believe that in order to understand pathologies, we need to understand normative functioning first,” she says. “Therefore, I want to know how the brain works and what factors affect normal functioning. “

While taking a class on cognitive psychology, she approached her professor, Dr. John Geiger, to determine if he was actively researching in the field. Since then, Downen has collaborated with Geiger on two research projects that focused on text comprehension and situation models. Both projects were presented at research conferences.

Downen was recently named Oklahoma Undergraduate Student of the Year by the Oklahoma Psychological Society as well as the Cameron Department of Psychology’s Psychology Major of the Year.

She will continue her Cameron tenure this fall, pursuing a Master of Science in Behavioral Sciences. Her thesis topic will focus on either autism or Alzheimer's. She then plans to attend medical school to pursue a degree in either neurology or psychiatry, with the goal of helping families of cognitively impaired children and others with cognitive disabilities.

Once she completes her studies, Downen’s scope of practice will include the military community. She is a veteran of the U.S. Army, and her husband, Kyle, is currently a member of Cameron’s Army ROTC program and will commission as a second lieutenant next year.

“I want to practice as a physician and Army officer, ultimately helping soldiers and their families, the very people that help our nation stay independent and free,” she says.

April Vermillion
When April Vermillion of Duncan walks across the Commencement stage to pick up not one degree, but two (an Associate in Science and a Bachelor of Business Administration), she will no doubt be dedicating that journey to her daughter, Kellsie. Vermillion started her college career when Kellsie was just 17 days old.

“I had moved out here from California to join my family,” Vermillion says. “I was just about to have her and wondered, ‘How I am going to support a child?’ I had been in retail my whole life, but you ultimately hit a cap in that world, and I didn’t want to be a cashier forever. I wanted to do more. I wanted my daughter to have opportunities that I didn’t have.”

Not only is Vermillion a first-generation college graduate, she is a first-generation high school graduate. “My parents started a family really young,” she explains. “My parents didn’t finish school, although my dad did complete his GED. It was important for me to get a degree. I want to show my daughter that you can do anything even if you are from a family that didn’t have those opportunities.”

The decision to enroll at CU-Duncan was easy, since the campus is less than a mile from Vermillion’s house. 

“It was the perfect place, since I didn’t have a lot of people to watch my daughter,” Vermillion says. “A lot of people say they can’t go back to school because they have kids. But I am proof that it can be done. I managed to go to school without ever having a babysitter. When Kellsie was little, my mom would watch her while I was in class and working. Then when she got older, I enrolled her in Head Start. By the time she was through for the day, I would be out of class and off work.”

Vermillion also worked on campus for almost four years, serving as an ITV facilitator. She was able to complete all of her degree requirements on the Duncan campus – although she did take one elective “fun” workshop at the Lawton campus with some friends.

“CU-Duncan may not be as big as the Lawton campus, but there are so many contacts available there,” Vermillion says. “In fact, that’s how I got my job. Someone I took classes with knew of an opening where she worked, ASCOG (Association of South Central Oklahoma Governments), and she recommended me.” 

Vermillion started her career as an accountant in November, a few weeks before she was finished with her final classes. She is happily thriving in her workplace, thanks in part to her Cameron education.

“This was a whole new career path, being an accountant,” she says. “If I had not gone to school, there is no way I would have felt comfortable doing this.”

As both a CU student and part-time employee, she experienced tremendous support on the Duncan campus.

“Because it’s a smaller campus, it was like being part of a family,” Vermillion says. “Anything you needed help with, there were at least five other people willing to help. Even the instructors who weren’t your instructors were willing to put the time in to help whenever they could.”

She especially wants to acknowledge Susan Camp, Director, CU-Duncan; Cindy Meadows, Admissions Specialist; and Dee Griggs, ITS Technician. 

“I have to thank Susan and Cindy for all the encouragement they have given me over the four years I was there,” she says. “And even though I only worked with Dee for a few months, she means the world to me. It was sad to leave, because they are truly like family.”

Now that she’s happily settled into a new professional career, Vermillion is looking ahead to the future. “I don’t think I’m finished with my education yet,” she says, indicating that graduate school is next on her agenda. It’s safe to say that a college education has already had a positive impact on her life.

“I notice more doors open for me now than there ever were before I got my education,” Vermillion says. “I feel like I can do anything.”

Bishaka Karki

Bishaka Karki understood that education was the key to a better future from an early age.

“As far as I can remember, my parents have always emphasized one thing and one thing only - education,” says the Kathmandu, Nepal native. “They did not have the opportunity to go to school and they wanted to make sure that I had everything that they couldn’t.”

Even with that support, her decision to obtain a college degree in the U.S. was met with questions and concerns. “Never had anyone in my family come to the States to do their undergraduate work, and on top of that, being a female, brought more scrutiny to my decision,” she says. “My parents were hesitant to send me here. They were worried that they would not be able to support me financially. It was only after my uncle convinced my parents that he would support me that I proceeded with the college applications.”

Cameron University, however, was not on her radar. Just as she anticipated receiving responses from the universities to which she had applied, she was rushed into emergency surgery. Her recovery instructions included staying in bed for three months and being under observation for an additional six months. Her college dream was beginning to evaporate.

“As my friends started their college life, I did not want to be left behind,” Karki says. “So I ignored my doctors and my family members and started looking for colleges that were still accepting applications. Luckily, Cameron happened to be one of them.”

When she arrived at Cameron in Fall 2011, she had a tough transition. “I don’t think I had ever felt so lonely in my life,” she says. “Everything was so different. I felt like a fish out of water. The vast cultural difference was apparent, and it took some time getting used to eating broccoli with cheese in the cafeteria. My health deteriorated, and I could barely walk from my room to classes.”

Then the worst-case scenario happened. Her uncle withdrew his financial support and cut off all ties with her. Karki found herself stranded in a foreign country with no money, no place to go, tuition to be paid, and no one to depend on.

“I didn’t want to go home,” she says. “I did not want to lose this battle. I refused to give someone the power to ruin my life, my decision and my choice. I had come a long way, and I had worked hard for this. I wanted to do it for my parents, my sister, and for all those people who said I couldn’t. But mostly I wanted to do it for myself.”

The next few months were difficult. Karki house-hopped from place to place and even lived on the streets for a brief time. Her situation improved when she found a job working on campus in the Department of Communication.

“Life was starting to look better,” Karki recalls. “I got nothing but encouragement from my professors. The department secretary, Ms. Norma (Schmall), was always there to listen to me rant about everything. My co-workers, Stacy Hill and Teewhy Dojutelegan, drove me to do better. Stacy constantly pushed me to study an hour extra, ask one more question, practice a little longer or read one more article. He made me want to become a better student.”

She was well on her way to a degree in communication with a concentration in public relations. Her decision to declare a minor led her to the Department of Computing and Technology. A friend suggested that she take one of Dr. Muhammad Javed’s classes, so she enrolled in Introduction to Networking, the first information technology class she had ever taken.

All her life, she had been told that because she was a female, she had no aptitude for computers and technology. “Without giving it a second thought, I thought of myself as a technologically challenged person,” she says.

Still, she took a second class with Javed, then a programming class with Dr. Johnny Carroll. Convinced she was going to fail, she came close to dropping the latter. A conversation with Carroll changed that.

“When I walked out of that room, I knew I was as good as anyone else in that building, and nobody else could prove otherwise,” Karki says.

She found herself in a database class taught by Dave Smith. After the first class, she told Smith she was going to drop the class, again fearing failure. But he encouraged her to stay in the class. Once again, the support of a faculty member made the difference. Karki will graduate not only with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication but with a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology.

“There are not enough words to describe how thankful I am to Dr. Javed, Dr. Carroll and Mr. Smith for never giving up on me,” she says. “These three people are solely responsible for my double majors. They are the reason why I walk around Howell Hall like I own the place. They are the reason why today, as I stand, do not see myself as technologically challenged. They have not only taught me what is in the book but they have taught me to love what I do. They have opened a whole new world for me that I would have never explored on my own.”

Stacy Hill

Webster says that higher education is education beyond the secondary level but that hardly captures the meaning.

Higher education truly holds a lot of value and it's not just in the higher paychecks that graduates earn.

When Fort Cobb native Stacy Hill graduated from high school, he was already a husband and father. Attaining a college degree was not on his mind, as he thought only about getting a job to support his family. His mother, who understood the value of education, convinced him otherwise. Four years later, he is poised to graduate with a Bachelor of Business Administration and a minor in public relations. This fall, he will continue his education to pursue a master’s degree.

“Because of my education, I will soon be stepping into a career and not just a job,” Hill says. “Higher education is going to give me the chance to better provide for my family. I have received much more than this though. I have been given the chance to explore myself and my opportunities and grow.”

Hill says that his father once told him that college is a place where a person can find his or her calling. “Now that I am graduating, I can see how true this is,” he says. “I have been able to look around and try things on. I have been exposed to many different disciplines of study and ideas. Higher education has played a big part in helping me find myself and in helping me find out my strengths and my weaknesses, my likes and my dislikes.”

He believes that his college experience has enabled him to grow into a well-rounded individual, someone who is going to be able to accomplish a lot of things. He has been able to polish existing skills and acquire new skills, and he is appreciative of the chance to learn not only from successes but from failures as well - failures that could have only been allowed to happen in a college setting.

“As a marketing student and a public relations student, I have learned how to think critically and express my ideas,” Hill says. “In classes we were not simply given book definitions and theories. We were encouraged to be creative and analyze situations. We had the opportunity to work hand-in-hand with local businesses. I have been shaped, along with my classmates, into an effective communicator and problem solver.”

As a member of Cameron’s Presidential Leaders and University Scholars (PLUS) program, Hill also garnered value leadership experience. “Through PLUS, I have learned a lot about service to my community and leadership,” he says. “I started out doing community service projects just to meet the PLUS requirements, but it has become much more than that. I have seen firsthand the differences that can be made by volunteering. I have seen the look on a child's face when he receives a warm coat that is going to get him through the winter or when he receives his first good meal in a long time. I have learned how to be an effective leader and how to appreciate diversity.”

Hill’s experience in higher education will stay with him throughout his lifetime. “I have the potential to be a leader and have a positive impact on the lives of many people,” he says. “Higher education gives students the opportunity for exploration and growth, molding them into the people that our state needs.”


May 4, 2015