By Monica Chapman and Linda Lockhart
Spirits were high, sunshine was plentiful and more than one remarkable story emerged as some 700 candidates for master's and doctoral degrees capped off their successes this morning in Ohio University's graduate commencement ceremony.
For many, the familiarity of the Convocation Center brought back fond memories of their days at Ohio University. Others, such as Jim Duffy, caught his first glimpse of the center -- a mainstay of university life -- only yesterday.
Duffy earned his master's degree in engineering management through the university's distance learning program. He began his degree via video from Lorain County Community College, but with two quarters to complete, he was offered a job to work with NASA, requiring him to relocate to Huntsville, Ala.
"This job seemed too good to be true. It is the job of a lifetime," he said. "But I really wanted my master's, and I didn't want to give up. It was a tough choice to leave, but the distance-learning option was one of the things that helped decide it for me."
Distance was only one barrier to Duffy's accomplishment, though. In 1990, a motorcycle accident left him paralyzed from the chest down, with limited movement in his forearms and one wrist, and confined to a wheelchair.
"I thought 'Well, I still have a mind, and I can really do something with that. I'm not going to be able to dig a ditch, obviously, but I can think, and if I can think, then I can still contribute,'" he said. "I really valued education more (after the accident)."
He credits the success he celebrated today to unwavering determination and advancements in technology, such as voice recognition software, that allowed him to perform more tasks and keep pace with fellow students.
Surrounded by his family, Duffy said the trip to Athens for the celebration was important to show his children how his many years of hard work and determination have paid off.
"It is good for my kids to see me march in commencement -- to see it all come to fruition," he said. "They've seen all the work I've put into it. My kids seeing me graduate is one of the major drivers in coming for the ceremony."
Family support was one of they key components in the commencement address, given by 2007 Outstanding Graduate Faculty Award winner Julie Owens, an associate professor of psychology at Ohio University.
"One of the impressive things about the support of friends and family throughout graduate school is that they likely provided it without really understanding what it is that you do," Owens said, after spurring the graduates' applause for the many supporters in attendance.
Owens encouraged the graduates to enhance their academic identities by taking on new roles in society -- as advocates, volunteers and mentors.
"As you leave the campus of Ohio University, I encourage you to consider how you will use your knowledge, your status, your expertise to empower others and to improve your workplace and local community," Owens told the graduates.
Owens also lauded the graduates on the level their accomplishment, citing a Census Bureau statistic that only 9.4 percent of the nation's population age 25 or older holds a graduate or professional degree.
"Today, let's celebrate your degree, the person you have become through the process and the person you have yet to become. Each day is a new opportunity to make our world better. How will you choose to see 'today'?" she concluded.
As is Ohio University tradition, Owens' successor -- the 2008 Outstanding Graduate Faculty Award recipient, Professor of Political Science Patricia Weitsman -- will address next year's graduates. Executive Vice President and Provost Kathy Krendl recognized Weitsman, author of "Dangerous Alliances: Proponents of Peace, Weapons of War" and a member of the faculty since 1995.
Also recognized were 2008 Distinguished Professor Damian Nance and 2008 Outstanding Graduate Student Leader Brittany Buxton. Nance is a leading geoscientist and 28-year Ohio University faculty member, while Buxton, a member of Graduate Student Senate and the Vision Ohio Steering Committee, earned a master's degree in college student personnel.
"Your graduation truly represents what lives within you. Passion, determination and hope brought you to this moment," McDavis told the graduates. "Passion gave you the enthusiasm to pursue a course of study. Determination got you through late, long nights of writing, reading and studying. And hope kept you focused on the greatest reward of this entire experience, your degree.
"Each of you has brought unique characteristics and special talents to Ohio University, and you have made our university richer by your presence," McDavis concluded before awarding the diplomas.
For some, such as Fulbright Scholar Haroon Rashid, the trip to the podium couldn't come soon enough.
"Every day, I have counted my seconds! And now I am done," said Rashid, who graduated today with a master's in media management.
Rashid's anticipation was well-warranted; his graduate studies came at a hefty price. When he departed his homeland of Afghanistan two years ago to pursue his graduate studies, he left behind his then-pregnant wife and three sons. He'll return Sunday to his wife and four sons.
"It's been very difficult. We are always talking on the phone, but sometimes you want to hold them and play with them," said Rashid, who will resume his role as director of public relations with the Afghan president's office.
"This moment is a kind of wonderful moment," he said. "On one hand, I'm graduating, and on the other hand, I'm leaving to meet my children."
Others, such as Nida Ikiz, a doctoral student in engineering, were equally nostalgic about the day's significance.
"We really enjoyed being a part of Ohio University and the Athens community. There are so many international students here, and the people are very hospitable," said Ikiz, one of two women to graduate today with a doctoral degree in engineering. "I will miss the friendships, the hospitality and all."
Ikiz's journey through her master's and doctoral programs at Ohio University spanned seven years, punctuated by her marriage and the birth of her daughter in addition to her academic milestones. Ikiz said she and her husband, Ali Ikiz, who also holds a doctorate from Ohio University, sacrificed a great deal to achieve their respective academic standings.
But according to Ikiz, today's commencement made it all worthwhile: "Once you finish everything and you enjoy the success, everything that you faced becomes totally worth it."
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