Cameron University graduating class of 2011 filled with inspirational stories

Cameron University will honor the class of 2011 during its annual Commencement ceremony at 7:30 p.m., Friday, May 6, at Cameron Stadium in Lawton, with guest speaker Dr. Joseph Westphal, Under Secretary of the United States Army. This year, 999 Cameron students are eligible to receive diplomas signifying degree completion. 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 family celebration, determination and personal accomplishment of a few graduates from the class of 2011.

Jim Horinek, Duncan

Jim Horinek is one of the most visible students on the Cameron campus. As a communication major, he has played an integral role at The Collegian for the past five years. Covering campus events for the paper, camera in hand, Jim just might know every nook and cranny, every shortcut, every stairwell, and every elevator on campus. He also knows which routes will add to the chronic pain he lives with every day.

Jim was born with chondromalacia patellar, also known as patellofemoral pain syndrome. It is a condition that causes the cartilage in his knees to degenerate and become softened, resulting in tears and scratches to the cartilage. In addition, he suffers from patellar subluxation, a dislocation in the knee joint. His knee cap, which is not protected with healthy cartilage, rubs incorrectly against his already weakened cartilage. His knees are also hyper-reflexive – they bend backwards past the point which is normal and healthy, which places more pressure on his joints. The pain Jim experiences never goes away, and additional strain on the joints adds to it considerably. As a result, any prolonged movement, including walking across campus to class, results in what Jim describes as “aching, stabbing pain.”

The Duncan native has lived with pain all his life. By the time he was 17, the pain was unbearable, and he sought the help of doctors. He spent several years seeing doctor after doctor and undergoing different treatments before his condition was fully diagnosed when he was 21. He has undergone three unsuccessful surgeries in addition to numerous other procedures that yielded little or no improvement. When it comes to different treatments, he’s tried them all: physical therapy, stretching, injections, icing, and even hypnosis. The only remedy – which treats the pain, not the cause – is the use of painkillers.

“Living in constant pain is something that can really affect your life and daily activities,” Jim says. “Despite that fact, the pain is just a part of my reality, and I deal with it the best I can. There is not a magic fix for what I have, so consequently, I can do one of two things. I can lie down and let it become who I am, or I can attempt to deal with it the best I can and keep moving forward. I have chosen the latter.”

Through it all, he is determined to lead a normal life. Some students faced with a chronic medical problem would choose to live at home, yet Jim opted to live on campus for a few years before moving into his own apartment. He happily fulfilled the obligations that accompanied his status as a PLUS scholar, logging many volunteer hours serving the community. And there’s a chance he’s attended more events on campus than any of his fellow students due to his commitment to The Collegian.

For the past year, Jim has also been working as a graphic designer for a local company, logging more than 30 hours a week in that role while at the same time attending class, serving as managing editor of The Collegian, and working as a freelance photographer. The latter role is perhaps the most challenging physically. Shooting events such as Lawton’s annual International Festival requires constant movement that increases his pain, yet Jim has learned how to manage his condition so he can live what he calls a normal life.

Basically, he plans ahead as much as possible, knowing which stairs to avoid and where to save as many steps as possible. He allots extra time for walking long distances so he can take breaks. In the long-term, Jim has been informed by several doctors that he will most likely require knee replacement surgery on both knees.

Jim’s medical prognosis may be challenging, but he views his “life” prognosis with optimism.

“Sure, I spent my share of time being bitter and angry about the hand I was dealt,” Jim says. “Luckily, I got over that. I always approach it with the mindset of playing the hand you are dealt and doing your best with what you've got. That mindset has made it easier for me to deal with the whole thing.”

When Jim walks across the stage to receive his Bachelor of Arts degree during Commencement, he will relish every step.

“After taking those last few steps across the stage in my journey toward my degree, you can be sure that despite the pain, it will be the last thing on my mind.”

Caleb Marlin, Lawton

Caleb Marlin admits that his academic performance in high school was lackluster – until the end of his junior year. That’s when life as he knew it underwent a complete change. Caleb’s family packed up and relocated to Florida. He chose to remain in Lawton, a choice that required him to become completely independent. For the first time faced with meeting his own financial needs and experiencing the hardships of life without his family, Caleb experienced what he calls “my own personal great awakening, in which I realized the need for higher education and pursuit of a means to provide for myself and, in the future, a family.

Suddenly, his formerly lackadaisical performance was transformed. “Independence was a great motivator,” he says.

During his senior year at Lawton High School, he enrolled concurrently at Cameron University. After graduating from high school, Caleb decided on a career goal after receiving some advice from a local doctor.

“He told me that anybody with an average I.Q. can become a physician – it’s just a matter of how hard you work,” he says. “I was always good at science, and I figured you could just do two things with a biology degree – become a physician or become a teacher.”

During the Summer 2007 semester, Caleb began working with Dr. Dennis Frisby, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, on a research project that introduced him to a laboratory setting and the endless possibilities for investigative science. “Once I discovered research, I was hooked,” he says.

The one-time physician-to-be became more motivated than ever, deciding he would pursue a postgraduate degree in biomedical research. He gained vital experience in various lab techniques while working on research projects at Cameron. That experience led to his acceptance into a prestigious summer research program that took him to the OU Health Sciences Center, where he worked on a project to analyze the molecular mechanisms of how cancer develops new blood vessels.

“If you can figure out how cancer develops new blood vessels, then you possibly have the means to determine how to stop that development,” he explains.

The hands-on knowledge and the potential impact of the project solidified his future goal.

“The overall experience, even though brief, provided the final assurance in my desire to pursue a doctorate,” Caleb says. “Since I began investigative research in the lab, I quickly realized my zeal for not only performing the experiments in the laboratory, but also the opportunity to present the science.”

As a Cameron student, Caleb has presented his findings on numerous occasions, including the Beta Beta Beta National Biological Honors Society Regional Meeting for Oklahoma and Texas. He was honored with the John C. Johnson Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research at that meeting.

“My goal is to become a more educated and prepared scientist for the research world,” he says. He will be pursing that goal at the OU Health Sciences Center, where he has been accepted into the graduate program. He starts his first lab rotation in May.

“When I applied for graduate school, I didn’t have the highest GPA, but I did have four years of undergraduate research, something that most applicants don’t have,” Caleb says. “Plus I come from the best biological science program in the state. Cameron is the crème de la crème for Oklahoma. If not for the facilities here and the faculty members, I would not have had the research experience and most likely would not have gotten into graduate school.”

As a 17-year-old high school senior, Caleb faced hardships that would no doubt cause many teenagers to crumble. Instead, he used those challenges as motivation and found his passion along the way. He also found a life partner – his wife Kayleigh, another biology major who will also graduate this spring. In five years, when he has earned a doctorate, he will be prepared to step into his own research lab.

“With Christ, my older brother Michael, my wife Kayleigh and daughter Mykah Renee as my overwhelming motivators, I am a strongly motivated man, husband, father, and scientist,” Caleb says. “I owe much to Cameron University.”

Nene Niane, TambaCounda, Senegal

Nene Niane’s parents never intended for their daughter to attend school. In her culture, school was for boys. For girls, success was defined by finding a husband by the age of 16. Nene grew up in TambaCounda, Senegal; her parents were originally from Mali. But Nene wanted to go to school, so she enrolled herself in elementary school and attended every day. Her father’s time was taken up tending to business, and her mother and brothers thought her daily trips to school were merely a jaunt so she could play with the children who did go there.

For six years, Nene persevered. Always at the head of the class, she took learning seriously. Yet because she never produced a birth certificate when she enrolled, she was unable to take the sixth grade national exam. Finally, she told her mother she needed her birth certificate so she could continue her schooling.

“When my mother found out that I was actually going to school, I think she was proud of me,” says Nene. With her birth certificate in hand, she returned to school, where she had to repeat the sixth grade in order to become “official.”

But with no real encouragement from her family, she dropped out shortly before taking the ninth grade exam.

“After I dropped out, I regretted it, and one of my teachers told me he expected me to show up to take the exam,” she says. “But then I got married and didn’t think about school anymore.”

She knew her husband, Abdoul, through family connections. He travelled to the United States and joined the Army. When he was stationed in Germany, Nene was able to join him. Fluent in French, her native language, she took English as a Second Language for Military Spouses at the base, anxious to make new friends and find work on an English-speaking installation in a German-speaking country. She volunteered for the American Red Cross, which gave her the opportunity to practice her English, but still struggled to communicate. One day, seeing a group of high school students playing basketball, she wanted to join the game, but was unable to communicate with them. Fortunately, the coach of the team spoke some French. He put her on the phone with his wife, who was fluent in the language.

“She really became my mentor,” says Nene. “She talked to me about getting my high school equivalency and helped me with my English.”

With that encouragement, Nene successfully passed the high school equivalency test.

“I was happy that I passed and I knew I wanted to go to college, but I didn’t know how to pay for it,” she says. “I always wanted to be a nurse. Then my husband was transferred to Fort Sill in 2009, and I said that when I got to the U.S., I would go to college.”

After investigating the options available in southwest Oklahoma, Nene enrolled at Cameron. This spring, she will receive an Associate in Science degree in Interdisciplinary Studies with a concentration in pre-nursing. Over the past two years, she has earned a place on either the Dean’s or President’s Honor Roll each semester and was recently inducted into Phi Eta Sigma, the national interdisciplinary honor society.

She received the Outstanding Freshman Writing Award for English Composition in 2010 and 2011.

Nene, who plans on becoming a nurse, has applied to the OU School of Nursing so she can pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing.

“I don’t see limiting myself to a bachelor’s degree,” Nene says. “I really dream of going to graduate school.”

She credits the Cameron faculty with giving her the motivation to strive for more. “No matter what you lack in life, the hardest thing is to believe in yourself,” she explains. “My great professors here at Cameron make me believe in myself.”

Nene is happy to share her story with others who may lack family support or who struggle to find the means to get a college degree. “If I can do it,” she says, “anyone can do it.”

Debria Schuler, Temple

Three weeks before Cameron’s 2011 Commencement ceremony, Debria Schuler’s granddaughter, Sydnei Schuler, said to her, “I never thought I’d be doing homework for college with my grandmother!”

Both are Cameron students, as is Debria’s daughter, Stacie. When Debria walks across the stage at Commencement, she will experience the culmination of a lifelong dream - earning a college degree. This academic year has been especially memorable for Debria, as the three generations have shared their college experiences.

Debria was raised by a single father. Although his own education ended in the third grade, school was important to him. When she was 12, he sent her to Temple to live with her older sister. There, Debria went to school with a cousin who was a straight A student.

“She was my inspiration,” Debria says. “I wanted to make good grades just like her. That’s what made school important to me.”

But, as often happens, the circumstances of life altered her plans. During her junior year in high school, now married and with a baby, Debria wanted to quit school altogether.

“My husband wouldn’t let me quit,” she says. “He absolutely wouldn’t let me, so I finished high school and graduated. That’s one argument I’m glad I lost.”

She was also pregnant with her second child, so it looked like the end to her dream of college.

“I always wanted to be a nurse, and I knew that meant going to college. It was always on my mind,” she recalls. “But I knew that also meant money, and I didn’t know anything about the availability of funds. So I always thought college was out.”

Still, after five children, the thought of getting a college degree stayed with her. “Every year, I’d read about Cameron’s graduates,” she says. “One year, there was an article in the newspaper about a woman who got her degree when she was 70 years old. That really started me thinking, but I still didn’t know how to pay for it.”

She received encouragement from a high school principal. “I’d worked in the school as an aide and as a substitute teacher, and I really liked being around the children,” Debria explains. “The principal told me I should get a degree and become a teacher, because he recognized that I had something to offer the kids.”

Ultimately, Debria learned about financial assistance programs that would allow her to go to college and became a Cameron student in Fall 2007, juggling classes, homework, and family while serving as the mayor of Temple for part of the school year. She found encouragement, support and resources in the Office of Student Support Services, which administers the federal TRIO programs for non-traditional college students.

“The program has been monumental in my success as a student,” Debria says. “The staff has nurtured me in every area of college life. I want to encourage the students following me to be active in the program. That’s what will keep it alive at Cameron. Student Support Services is vital to the success of the non-traditional student.”

During her first semester at Cameron, while fulfilling her general education requirements, she received some much-needed assistance from Sydnei, who was at that time a sophomore in high school.

“I had to take beginning algebra, and Sydnei was also taking that in high school,” Debria explains. “She helped me get through that class, making me tip sheets and writing out formulas.”

Debria also shared some classes with her youngest daughter, Ashlee, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice in May 2010 and is now a Specialist in the U.S. Army.

In the fall, her nephew Lancer Littles will carry on the Cameron family tradition.

This year, Debria will receive a Bachelor of Arts in Social Studies Education. Debria has been a student worker in the Department of Communication since 2007, another experience she values. During a recent event, department chair Tony Allison was asked if Debria worked for him. He replied, “No, she doesn’t work for me, she works with me.”

“His statement spoke volumes to me,” Debria says. “I already liked and respected him, but that took him to another level in my books.”

Debria’s advice to others is “Don’t ever stop learning.” It is a bit of wisdom that will continue to serve her well as she continues her education, as she is seriously considering pursuing a master’s degree. Her ultimate goal is to become a public school teacher.

Penny Sutton, Duncan

Good things are worth the wait. Ask Penny Sutton, whose path to a college degree took 40 years.

“When I graduated from Comanche High School in 1971, my mother told me I had to go to college for one semester, then I could decide what I wanted to do,” Penny says. When she met her future husband, Jim Sutton, who was already a Cameron student, her motivation doubled. She enrolled, and for one semester, she and Jim attended Cameron together.

“When we decided to get married, he went to work and I continued with college,” Penny explains. “I enrolled as a music major, then changed my major to math when we got married. During my junior year, I was expecting my first child. I was taking Advanced Bowling, and my doctor told me I couldn’t continue that class, so I had to withdraw – the only class I ever withdrew from. I managed to finish my junior year, but that was it. Back then, you didn’t go to school or do anything else – you raised kids.”

For the next 20 years, Penny had two more children, taught piano, and worked for a local accounting firm. Her mother always asked her, “When are you going back to college?”

By 1994, she and her family were living in Duncan. When the Duncan Higher Education Center (which later became Cameron University-Duncan) opened that year, she decided it was time to pick up where she left off. With a five-year-old still to raise, attending college full-time was not an option, so she took a class or two each semester. She was still a math major, although music was her passion. Within a few years, though, she quit school once more.

“In 2000, I got the job of my dreams,” Penny says. “I was working with Jimmy Zinn, the music director at Duncan High School. He needed an accompanist, so I went to work there. For three years, it was wonderful being with the kids. He was a gifted teacher, and I learned so much from him.”

When Zinn was diagnosed with cancer in 2003, she was given the opportunity to fill in for him, often working 70 hours a week at minimum wage yet only getting paid for 30. “I loved teaching, and it was a great experience to take over the class that semester. After he passed, though, the new teacher had a different approach. I decided I wanted to be a teacher to give the kids the music education that I had gotten.”

So in 2005, she enrolled at Cameron once more. Her first challenge in completing her degree was identifying a degree program that would utilize her existing credit hours.

“The one person who jump-started bringing this last few years to a successful ending was Susan Camp (Director of CU-Duncan). She sat with me at a high school awards assembly with a degree checklist and  my transcript and worked to see if she could help me figure out a means to accomplish graduation with the hours that I had.”

Once she had determined that a music degree was possible, Penny was anxious to begin taking the final four classes she needed. Unfortunately, they were music courses that were not available at the Duncan campus, and she had difficulty getting time off from her job. She was able to take the two music theory classes as independent study courses and was down to two required music history courses. In a random twist of fate, the Department of Music had an opening for department secretary. Penny applied, got the job, and last fall was able to complete the first of her two final classes. This spring, she will complete the second, fulfilling her degree requirements.

Forty years after first enrolling at Cameron, Penny has earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Music. Her next step: attain alternative certification so she can teach.

The degree fulfills not only Penny’s dream, but her mother’s as well. For the past 17 years, while taking classes and whittling away her degree requirements, Penny kept her college education a secret from her mother, who found out just weeks ago that Penny was indeed finishing college.

“You can’t give up,” Penny says. “You can’t quit. Ask for help if you need it. I had a lot of people encouraging me, and I wouldn’t have made it without that.”

CU’s international students

This spring, 99 students holding student visas from 24 countries will graduate from Cameron University including students with homes in Argentina, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, British Virgin Islands, Canada, Dominica, El Salvador, Grenada, Hong Kong, India, Ivory Coast, Japan, Macedonia, Mexico, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal, Nigeria, The Philippines, Slovakia, South Korea, St. Kitts and Nevis, and St. Lucia. Jake Forsythe, who will receive a Bachelor of Science degree in Health and Physical Education, has travelled more than 8,500 miles for his college degree. He is a native of Tamworth, Australia.


April 26, 2011