Perseverance pays off for the Class of 2017

  • Young & not-so-young celebrate rite of passage

    Friday, May 26, 2017
    Cordelia Tull and Crystal Purnell

    Members of UMES' Class of 2017 won't likely forget how their Memorial Day weekend started - with pomp and circumstance. 

    The university awarded 441 degrees during Friday's spring graduation ceremony, a quarter of which went to graduates who listed Prince George's County communities as their hometowns. 

    That made for a friendly and familiar audience for Rushern L. Baker III, the Prince George's County executive who served as speaker for the university's 130th commencement. 

    The 125 miles traveled by Baker as well as the families and friends of UMES graduates from “PG” County pale in comparison to the journey Cui Fang's parents took to watch their only child make school history. 

    The couple flew 7,500 from their native China to see Fang receive a master's in pharmaceutical sciences, the first such degree awarded by the university since the graduate-level program began. 

    “I'm very excited,” she said. “We have not seen each other in two years, so this is a special moment for us.” 

    Yuzhu Zhang, Fang's mother, said “we are very proud and happy for her.” 

    For 2½ hours, the Hytche Athletic Center was a mostly happy place for a near-capacity crowd that cheered - vociferously at times - and waved as loved ones walked or skipped or occasionally danced as they accepted their degrees. 

    Jasmine E. Brown of Pocomoke City earned a degree with highest honors in exercise science, and delivered the traditional student commentary on behalf of her classmates.

    Mitra English & Christian Walston

    “This university will always have a place in my heart as an institution where I … was inspired to be the best that I could be - motivated by faculty who cared,” said Brown, a member of the Richard A. Henson Honors Program said. 

    “The staff and faculty saw more in me than I saw in myself at times, and for that I will always be grateful,” she said. “I am humbled to walk away from this university knowing I received a quality education.” 

    Brown preceded Baker, who said he was grappling with mixed emotions. His son got married a week ago and his youngest daughter just graduated from college. 

    “I'm a very happy man,” he said. “It's been a great week.” 

    But as his county's top local elected official, he was pained to watch constituents collectively grieving over the May 20 stabbing death of Richard W. Collins III three days before he was to graduate from Bowie State as a commissioned Army officer. A student at the University of Maryland, also in Baker's county, is accused of committing the crime on the College Park campus. 

    Collins, Baker said, “was prepared to fight for freedom and justice, but sadly he will never be able to realize his potential.” 

    “College campuses should be a safe haven for students to share ideals and explore and understand our differences,” he said. “They should be places where kids go to learn and not be places where they die.” 

    President Juliette B. Bell invited the Hytche audience to observe a moment of silence in Collin's memory, a stark reminder of Memorial Day's meaning. 

    The federal holiday is also about honoring perseverance, a word that easily could apply to dozens of newly minted UMES alumni, including Crystal P. Purnell and Cordelia L. Tull

    Friends since they were teenagers who graduated in 1972 from Snow Hill High School, Tull and Purnell fulfilled life-long dreams by earning a college degree. 

    “For me,” said Purnell, an administrative assistant, “this is something my (late) mother always felt I should have - a college degree. It kept me focused on my journey.” 

    Tull enrolled in college after high school, but motherhood came along and before she knew it, she was working to support her family. 

    She accepted a job 15 years ago in UMES' comptroller's office, where she is an accounting associate. Nine years ago she embarked on a measured path of taking two classes a semester and this spring earned a bachelor's degree in sociology with honors. 

    “I'm just so, so … I feel like I want to cry, to shout … do all sorts of things,” Tull said. “I was kind of anxious. But I was definitely looking forward to this moment.” 

    Not to be outdone by her close friend, Purnell also graduated with honors with a degree in English

    “My two adult children, Paulette and Dennis, have supported me tremendously,” Purnell said. “They have offered encouragement and support throughout my journey of earning a degree.  Now that the journey is done, they share equally in my joy.” 

    There is also joy today in the Okulate household. Dr. Mobolaji A. Okulate, an associate professor in UMES' Department of Natural Sciences, saw his son, Temi Okulate, graduate with a bachelor's degree in computer science. UMES information technology staffers described the younger Okulate as a talented and hard-working student who worked for them as campus troubleshooter around his class schedule. 

    Hard work in a challenging major paid off for two lower Delmarva residents, Christian Walston of Crisfield and Mitra English of New Church, Va. Both graduated with bachelor's degrees in engineering, specializing in aerospace studies, and both have jobs waiting for them in the industry. 

    English will be employed by Raytheon and moving to Massachusetts, where she will be working on missile defense radar systems. 

    “It was tough,” English said of her undergraduate career that also including holding down a part-time job. “The classes were challenging, but I liked the professors and they really seemed to care.” 

    Orbital ATK, an aerospace and defense company with a branch in Wallops, Va., hired Walston, who will be working on sounding rocket designs. 

    “I had a great experience,” said Watson, also a member of the Henson Honors Program. “Working on space projects has been something that interested me as long as I can remember, and I'm thankful for the opportunity UMES provided me to realize my dream.” 

    The university announced Rakesh Joshi was the 2017 winner of the Bernstein award, which goes to a top student in science, engineering and math as voted on by the faculty. Joshi earned two bachelor degrees with highest honors in computer science and mathematics.