Cameron University graduating class of 2014 filled with inspirational stories

Cameron University will honor the class of 2014 during its annual Commencement ceremony at 7:30 p.m., Friday, May 9, at Cameron Stadium in Lawton. Bill W. Burgess, Jr., the first Cameron alumnus to be appointed to the University of Oklahoma, Cameron University and Rogers State University Board of Regents, 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 2014.

Tyler Blount

Tyler Blount has a calling to teach. “I like to see kids learn,” she says. “There’s just something about witnessing those moments when you know they get the connection to what you are teaching.”

Her exposure to young children started at home, as her mother operated a home daycare while Tyler was growing up. “I was around the kids all the time, and then I got involved with the children’s ministry at my church. I really enjoy working with younger kids, when they give you hugs and don’t have much of an attitude.”

While attending Lawton’s Eisenhower High School, Tyler knew that teaching would be her chosen profession. When her school counselor told her that Great Plains Technology Center was starting a pre-education program for high school students, she signed up and went on to become the program’s first graduate.

“We got to do field experience in actual classrooms,” she says. “I was assigned to a teacher at Whittier Elementary, and she let me work with my own small group of kids. That classroom exposure was a great experience, and it was fulfilling to work with kids in a classroom and connect with them.”

The program also introduced her to Cameron’s Department of Education during collaborative sessions that allowed GPTC pre-education students to experience higher education classes. After graduating from Eisenhower and having completed the GPTC program, enrolling at Cameron was the next step for Tyler. She was selected for the university’s Presidential Leaders and University Scholar (PLUS) program, which recognized Tyler’s excellence in academics, leadership, involvement and community service. As a Cameron student, she has continued her involvement in community service in a variety of projects, including working as a teacher and group leader at a children’s camp and teaching English in China.

“During the mission trip to China, we were working with a fairly upper class group, so most of them had a background in English,” she says. “We hung about with high school and college kids, and our lessons were about dialects and slang. Explaining slang terms and idioms was pretty funny. The kids we worked with have learned proper English, so throwing in those idioms threw them off. It was good to learn how the cultures are different. I’ll definitely take that experience into my classroom.”

As an elementary education major, Tyler’s coursework included a practicum class this semester. She says it has been a rewarding class that placed her in a classroom of third graders. “I had six objectives to teach them, which started with a pre-test to see how much they knew. When I started grading those, I realized they hadn’t mastered anything. I just gave the post-test, and they mastered three of the six lessons. It’s exciting to know that I was successful in at least half of my lessons, and it also tells me what I need to tweak.”

Tyler will be participating in this year’s Commencement ceremony, although she has one more academic task to complete for her degree requirements – student teaching. She’s looking forward to undertaking that experience in the fall.

“Student teaching will give me a taste of having my own class, but I’ll still have help. I’ll get a better experience of what it’s like to have your own class and to be in charge.”

She’s already been hired by Bishop Public School. In January 2015, she will be a tutor, where she’ll be helping students get ready for testing. She hopes to be a full-fledged teacher after that, teaching either third, fourth or fifth grade.

“From third to fifth grade, the kids like you and respect you,” she says. “They’re just beginning to form opinions, and they still want to give you hugs.”

And that seems like a calling worth answering.

Tammy Hornbeck 

Tammy Hornbeck knows a thing or two about perseverance. She’s also pretty familiar with sacrifice. Those attributes have played a crucial role in Tammy’s achievement of a college degree – the first member of her family to do so.

A native of Farmersville, Texas, Tammy was the youngest of eight children and grew up in what can best be described as difficult circumstances. As a seventh grader, she dreamed of being a writer, yet had no resources available to help her achieve that dream. At the age of 14, she found herself living in a group home, where she stayed until she was 18.

“The game plan was I would go to the local college in Waxahachie, Texas, because it was expected of me to go there just to meet a husband. At that point, my dream was to be a wife and mother.”

She bypassed the college part, got married and had two children. Dream fulfilled – or so she thought. “That didn’t work out very well,” she says. She was suddenly a single mother.

“I had to get career oriented,” Tammy says. “In 1995, I enrolled at a community college in McKinney, Texas, right after my divorce. Initially, I thought if I could just get C’s and pass, that was good enough.  When I saw I could do better than that, a real hunger for learning got started, and C’s weren’t enough anymore.”

But with no family support and unaware of any resources to help with the cost of going to school, Tammy dropped out. “I had to support my kids, so I went to work at multiple low-paying jobs with really bad hours.”

And that’s how it went for the next 13 years. Along the way, she met and married her current husband, Jesse Hornbeck. When his construction work dropped off due to the economy, Tammy decided one of the best ways she could support him and help her family was to go back to school and get a degree that would qualify her for a job that offered a higher salary.

She enrolled at Cameron in 2008, declaring English as her major and opting for the creative writing concentration.  The attainment of her degree required her to work both a full-time job and a part-time job while still attending Cameron as a full-time student.

“I didn’t have time to have a life,” she says. “I’ve missed a lot of church and a lot of family functions, and sleep. Gosh, I miss sleep! It was hard to get my schoolwork done and maintain a somewhat decent GPA. My husband has never complained when I’ve stayed late to study at the library. I’ve had this internal mantra – a short time sacrifice for a long term goal – that’s what keeps me going.”

In March 2012, Tammy was severely injured in a car wreck that caused her to drop out that semester. A blowout caused her vehicle to roll eight times, and she walked more than a mile to get help. If there was ever a time to consider quitting school, that was it – but no such notion entered her mind. “I was anxious to get back to school and back to work,” she explains. “I was accustomed to being busy, and I couldn’t be idle.”

In addition to the support of her husband and children, Tammy has found encouragement from Cameron’s Office of Student Support Services. “The staff in that office is unbelievably amazing,” she says. “They were there to encourage and support me. When I was struggling with a class, I could turn to them and find a way to keep going. “

She also cites George McCormick’s Directed Writing course as the one which has impacted her the most. “That’s where I learned I have a knack for writing memoirs,” she explains. “It’s the best course I’ve taken at Cameron. Other creative courses were great, but they didn’t let me tell my story. This one gave me a reason to write – to share my experiences, and that in turn helped me to structure my writing time.”

Now that she’s completed her degree, Tammy has set a new goal. “Originally I thought I would find an office job, but now I’m going to graduate school,” she says. “That hunger for learning really kicked in, and now it won’t stop.”

She’s already looking ahead to the day she adds a master’s degree to her arsenal. “I will either teach high school English or I will become a university professor teaching creative writing. I like to inspire writers.”

Manasa Illa
For some people, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream is the ultimate achievement. For Manasa Illa, it ended up being a stepping stone in a journey that brought her to Cameron from Amalapuram, a city in the southern part of India.

“Since my early childhood, I dreamed of being in the medical profession,” she says. “As a kid, I used to play games with my siblings where I would enact the role of a doctor.”

Her passion to help others led to a degree in dentistry from Dr. NTR University of Health Sciences in Vijayawada, India and a license to practice dentistry.  Immediately after graduating and before she could embark on a career in dentistry, she got married. Since her husband already lived in the U.S., Manasa followed.

“I came here, hoping to still pursue a dental career,” she says. “Unfortunately, I found that in order to practice in the United States, I would need to take some tests and return to dental school for at least two years. I passed the tests and was admitted into a dental school in Utah, but it was very hard for me and my husband to secure the hefty student loan I needed to attend. Therefore, left with no alternative and with a heavy heart, I had to give up my career aspirations of becoming a dentist.” 

Manasa’s dreams were shattered. Now at a crossroads, she thought long and hard about what to do. “I could neither stay at home doing nothing, nor leave my family and go back to India. It was then that it struck me - why not change my career track? I asked myself, ‘What else am I good at?’”

She decided to pursue a degree in the information technology field.  She and her husband had moved to Lawton, where he is a transportation engineer, so enrolling at Cameron was a logical choice. Still, doubts arose. “Initially, I was apprehensive about whether I could cope with this big change and accomplish it successfully,” Manasa explains. “The excellent faculty and my advisor in the Department of Computing and Technology have been wonderful in encouraging and urging me to do well at school.”

That encouragement was well-placed as Manasa has earned a spot on the Dean’s or President’s list every semester since becoming a full-time CU student.

“Going to Cameron just felt great,” she says. “I’ve had a wonderful time here and made good friendships that will hopefully last for years to come.”

Manasa has already accepted a job offer with one of the firms that is listed in Computerworld Magazine’s “Top 100 Companies to Work For in I.T,” where she will be responsible for developing mobile apps. She plans to pursue an MBA degree as well.

As she concludes her studies at Cameron, Manasa says, “Attending and receiving a degree from Cameron University has changed my life - for the better!”

Phoenix Tran

 “There have been numerous times in my life when I have been unsure of myself, unsure of what I wanted to do, and unsure about my potential to achieve anything at all,” says Phoenix Tran. “I was born in a third world country, with limited access to proper education in my early years.”

That self-doubt is a thing of the past these days. Phoenix, originally from Vietnam, will graduate with a degree in chemistry, sure of her future goals. She credits her success to her parents, who worked to ensure that Phoenix and her six siblings were able to obtain the limited education that was available in their homeland.

“Even though my parents made great sacrifices for their children, the economic situation in Vietnam was so poor that opportunities for achieving even a minimal education were extremely limited,” she says. “I had no opportunity to be exposed to any stimuli that would provide me with the vision to succeed in anything in my life.”

Phoenix realized that she knew how to work in order to help her parents and that one day, she would likely replace them and continue the work they were doing. That knowledge left her longing for something more. “Deep inside myself and with the constant encouragement of my parents, I developed a dream that somehow, somewhere there must be a better place to live and a hope for a brighter future. This dream sustained me in my early years. Even with the limited educational resources, I learned as much as I could.” 

The opportunity to pursue that dream came when she was 12 years old, when Phoenix’s family moved to the United States. “There was a spark of hope - we were going to the land of opportunity!”

Early on, she and her siblings faced obstacles. “My English was extremely limited, and the language barrier made school very difficult, but I didn’t use that as an excuse.”

Then tragedy struck. Phoenix’s father passed away shortly after they arrived in the U.S., leaving her mother and eldest brother with the responsibility of taking care of the family. Despite these difficulties, Phoenix dedicated herself to her studies. After graduating from high school, she joined the military.

“I had a strong desire to pay back the debt I owed to the United States for helping me to improve my life and the life of my family by enabling us to leave the poor conditions in Vietnam,” she says. “There were numerous jobs I could have chosen when I joined the Army, but the one that interested me the most was the Optical Lab Specialist. I thought that life is beautiful, but if one is unable to see it, the beauty is lost.”

She received training in that position from Lieutenant Colonel James Carrell, who she cites as one of the most prominent and highly decorated optometrists in the military's heath care system. For several years, Phoenix’s responsibilities included preliminary vision screening, taking pictures of the eye, performing intraocular tests and visual field tests, testing for color blindness and depth perception, and ordering glasses. She also fabricated and dispensed glasses and trained other technicians to do the same tasks.

“At the end of every day, I felt really great because I knew that I had helped somebody solve their vision problems,” she says.

Still, something was missing. While she was able to record the patient's ocular problems, she herself was unable to solve them.

“Several times in my life, my family and friends had come to me with eye problems or discomfort,” she recalls. “I was unable to help them, and this left me feeling depressed. I felt like a bird that cannot sing. I questioned myself as to why I had to pass the responsibility for the patient care to the doctor. Why couldn’t I be the one who provided the complete care of my patients' ocular health?”

As fulfilling as her work as a technician was, she was compelled to do more. “My career path was set.  I knew I wanted to complete my undergraduate degree and continue my studies to become a Doctor of Optometry.”

With that goal set, Phoenix began to work to achieve it. She took distance learning courses to become an optician. Because she was stationed in the Republic of Korea, she did not have all of the appropriate materials necessary for the classes - special frames and lenses that she needed to work with and study.  The preceptors that she worked with didn’t speak English, presenting another obstacle.

Phoenix was stationed at Fort Sill when her military service was completed, so she turned her full attention to her studies. Instead of returning to California, she decided to remain in Lawton to attend Cameron, enrolling in 2010. She has already achieved certification by the National Contact Lens Examiners and American Board of Opticianry. Her studies will not end when she walks the Cameron Commencement stage this May. She will embark on the next phase of her dream at Marshal B. Ketchum University, her first choice for optometry school.

“I hope to open my own practice and to use my practice as an outlet to serve my community by providing such services as vision screenings for school age children,” she says. “In the meantime, I plan to participate in events such as Care Harbor, a four-day community-based event at Marshal B. Ketchum University that provides optical, medical, and dental care to the underserved population, and Student Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity, a program that will take me to developing nations to provide eye exams and glasses for the impoverished.”


For Phoenix, the rewards of a career in optometry are in sight. “Optometry is the only medical field I know of where the majority of the patients go home with their problems solved, and for me, that’s very rewarding,” she says. “I am nearing the completion of my first milestone in my dream of helping others. My acceptance into optometry school will open a whole new world of study that will bring me closer to the fulfillment of this dream.”


May 2, 2014