ATU Summer Grads Look to Journey Ahead

As the newly minted summer 2017 graduates of Arkansas Tech University go forth to pursue their adventures, they will follow a variety of paths.

Zach Thompson of Hamburg earned a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering degree during a commencement ceremony at Tucker Coliseum in Russellville on Saturday morning. It was one of approximately 1,000 academic credentials conferred by ATU at the close of the summer 2017 terms.

Thompson’s path was constructed through an internship he completed with Stark Manufacturing in Paris on Friday. Saturday brought graduation, and less than 48 hours later he’ll be back with Stark Manufacturing as a full-time employee.

“I was able to pick up a lot of skills involving process design and process engineering that I definitely believe will help me later on in life,” said Thompson when asked about his internship. “An internship is definitely something each student should look for and something to look for early on. It gives you a major leg up career wise and understanding the material. There’s so much material that I learned, but didn’t fully understand until I could see it hands-on with this internship.”

It was the culture of ATU that drew Thompson to Russellville after beginning his higher education journey at another institution.

“The fact that I knew I could go to my professors for help, whether it be academic or personal…the fact that amongst the student body, we’re a team and you’re not fighting against your fellow student…that was a very big draw,” said Thompson.

Now he feels prepared for the journey ahead.

“An engineering degree does not teach you how to be an engineer,” said Thompson. “It teaches you how to learn to be an engineer. The curriculum here gave me the academic and theoretical backing, but it was my internship and a lot of my student involvement in projects like the Shell Eco-marathon car that gave me the technical basis to excel.”

Michele Leding of Tishomingo, Okla., said it was her sister who encouraged her to pursue a college degree. On Saturday, Leding earned an Associate of Applied Science degree in health information management through ATU-Ozark Campus at the age of 51.

“She said it’s a growing field and the best field to get into right now,” said Leding, who has earned a career opportunity with United Healthcare as a result of her studies. “I had two of the best instructors, Ms. (Brenda) Huntsinger and Ms. (Bonnie) Sher. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have made it.”

Leding wants to follow in their footsteps by earning a bachelor’s degree and eventually teaching health information management. She said that meeting and helping people has been the highlight of her Tech experience so far.

“Hanging out with younger people and feeling like I was part of the group, that’s what I like,” said Leding. “Taking that first step is scary, but don’t think twice. Do it. It was the best thing I’ve ever done. I thought long and hard about it, and it took me years because I was scared, but I did it. If you’re my age, you can do it. It’s amazing.”

Family connections were a familiar theme while visiting with graduates in the corridor of Tucker Coliseum before the commencement ceremony on Saturday morning.

ATU is a family tradition for Austin Brown of Heber Springs, who graduated with honors with a Bachelor of Science degree in health and physical education. His older brother, Anthony, and younger brother, Aaron, have both attended Tech.

Brown was in the U.S. Army ROTC program during his time as an undergraduate student, and he has accepted an active duty assignment as a medical service officer. He will report for duty in Alaska on Aug. 26.

As he begins that serious mission, he’ll do so with fond and light-hearted memories of his time serving as lead handler for Jerry the Bulldog, campus ambassador at ATU, as part of his participation in ROTC.

“It’s just awesome,” said Brown of his involvement in the campus ambassador program. “To walk around with Jerry and everything…everybody loves Jerry and everybody wants to be around him. It’s a new atmosphere when Jerry is around. It’s been cool to be a part of it.”

Josie Chism’s path to ATU started when she accompanied her older sister, Jessica, on a campus tour of Tech in 2009. On Saturday, the Rose Bud native earned her Bachelor of Science degree in hospitality administration from Arkansas Tech.

“I went with her to orientation and move-in day, and I just kept falling in love with the campus,” said Chism. “As I went through high school, I decided I wanted to go into a hospitality program. So, I researched schools and came to find out that Arkansas Tech has one of the best hospitality programs.”

Chism chose to focus on lodging and club management as part of her hospitality administration degree because she knew that discipline would expose her to unique people from different cultures. It wasn’t always easy, but the mentorship of faculty member Susan West helped Chism channel her grit and remain on pace to earn her degree.

“Whenever I wanted to take less classes or anything like that, (West) told me no,” said Chism. “She said that everyone she had seen who decided to take fewer classes had dropped out, and she wasn’t going to let me do that. She kept pushing me and pushing me, and she is one of the main reasons why I am here. I’m so proud. There were times when I didn’t think I could do it, but I’m still here and I’m one of the first people in my family to graduate from college. It means a lot to me, and it means a lot to my family, especially graduating from Arkansas Tech. It just means even more.”

Veteran, Service Dog Graduate Together

Two women own the heart of Eddie Gunter.

One is his wife, Maria, who watched proudly from the seats at John E. Tucker Coliseum in Russellville on Saturday morning as Gunter received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Arkansas Tech University.

The other is Star, a 7-and-a-half-year-old service dog who was with Gunter every step of the way to that degree, including the walk across the coliseum floor in her own cap and gown during Saturday’s commencement ceremony.

“(Star) is my savior when I’m down and my companion when I’m up,” said Gunter. “My wife is my best friend, and Star is right there in the same capacity. I think I care about each of them about equally. To have both of them here today, and for Star to get to walk with me, it’s icing on the cake.”

Gunter graduated from Russellville High School in 1987 and began classes at Arkansas Tech that fall.

“College probably wasn’t the first thing on my mind at that time,” said Gunter. “I was still young…18 years old. About two semesters in, the dean invited me to take a vacation. That vacation is what ultimately got me into the military.”

Gunter served as a medic in the U.S. Army. The years after his retirement from the service were trying times.

“I was struggling a lot with drinking, alcoholism and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” said Gunter. “I went to the in-patient treatment at the V.A. there at North Little Rock. It didn’t go really well the first go-round. That’s an eight-week process. It didn’t go very well, and I didn’t take it very well. I was short two weeks of making the whole program. The second time I went into the program, I was more open-minded because I knew I needed to get something to change.”

That change was made possible in part by Dr. Robert G. Zepecki, a veterinarian from Hot Springs who connects veterans with assistance dogs.

Zepecki, or “Dr. Bob” as Gunter calls him, had arranged for a service dog named Charlie to live with the patients on Gunter’s floor at the treatment center. Charlie and Gunter bonded.

“Dr. Bob was a blessing in getting this program worked out,” said Gunter. “They trusted me a little bit with Charlie, and I took Charlie to Petco. When we took Charlie to Petco is when I met Star. She was there with a rehab rescue group. As soon as I walked up to Star, and Star walked up to me…if you ever believed in love at first sight or that something was meant to be, that’s what I felt that day.”

Within a short period of time, Gunter had completed his therapy and Star was seated beside him for the car ride home to Hot Springs. They’ve been together ever since.

It was about that same time that Gunter resumed his education at Arkansas Tech. He took approximately half of his classes online and half in person, commuting from Hot Springs to Russellville for Tuesday and Thursday classes.

Now, almost 30 years after he began his studies there, Gunter is a graduate of ATU with a degree in rehabilitation science and psychology.

“Knowing the people and the doctors that had helped me along to get from the point of…let’s say drinking a fifth of whiskey every day and not wanting to get out of bed or leave my house…to wanting to leave my house and wanting to consider going to school…that adds some fuel to the fire,” said Gunter. “When I finally decided that rehabilitation science and psychology were for me, it just kind of fueled that fire a little more because I was learning about me. I want to work with other veterans because I know how many people helped me to get here. If people knew me five or eight years ago…down and out and battered and beaten as I was…if I can do it, anybody can do it. That’d be something I’d want every veteran in the country to hear.”

View Graduation Photos and Videos

Arkansas Tech University awarded nearly 700 degrees during Commencement ceremonies at Tucker Coliseum over the weekend.

Students earning degrees were recognized during one of three ceremonies.

Prior to each ceremony, students were also able to pay tribute to those who helped them succeed.

2016 Fall Graduation: Master's Ceremony | 12/16/16

2016 Fall Graduation: 10am Ceremony | 12/17/16

2016 Fall Graduation: 2pm Ceremony | 12/17/16

BPS Graduate Creates Program for AT&T

The opportunity to save one of the world’s largest corporations more than $111 million is not the average outcome of a class project.

But Jacob Garrett is not the average student, and the Arkansas Tech University Bachelor of Professional Studies degree is not the average online program.

Motivated by a goal to complete his college degree before his son graduated from high school, Garrett applied the credits he had earned at Tech earlier in life and went on to complete the online BPS degree from Arkansas Tech in two years as a member of the Class of 2016.

His was among 700 degrees awarded by Tech to graduates during fall commencement ceremonies at John E. Tucker Coliseum in Russellville on Friday, Dec. 16, and Saturday, Dec. 17.

On his path to graduation, Garrett used his capstone class to create a program entitled “You Achieve” for his employer, AT&T. The nine-figure savings (so far) have resulted from increased efficiencies in employees gaining access to online portals for coaching, documentation, gaining rewards, referring customers and professional development.

“I look for innovations that will allow us to use technology to change a process or procedure to make work-life balance better for our employees,” said Garrett, who works out of Conway as a member of AT&T’s national team in his role as senior technical processing quality manager. “I always start at the front line, and they really like that this project didn’t start high up in leadership and trickle down to them. These were ideas that started with employees.”

More than 116,000 AT&T employees have utilized the You Achieve system since it went live. The associated website has received more than 90 million hits.

Garrett points to his academic advisor, Miranda Senn, and his instructors, including Annette Stuckey, as key factors in allowing him to successfully complete the BPS program.

“I really thank Ms. Stuckey a lot for helping me with my capstone project,” said Garrett. “I knew how to run projects, but she really gave me a structure on how to run it. I had the experience, but I never had that structure. As big as this program was, being able to break it down into those steps is what made it successful.

“The biggest a-ha moment I had was the teamwork aspect,” continued Garrett. “What I found is that when everyone is involved and has skin in the game, it’s no longer my project. It’s everybody’s project. When I first went back to school, I thought I just wanted to get that piece of paper. But as I took ethics in business and psychology classes, I learned more about how to relate to people and the charisma part of gaining buy-in.”

With his degree in hand and a brighter future in front of him, Garrett has a simple message for individuals who are in the position now that he was in two years ago.

“I challenge you to enroll in one class,” said Garrett. “That is the hardest part in going back to school. Once you register, then you are in and you want to try two classes. Never give up. Register for one class. This online program is a life changer.”

Learn more about the Arkansas Tech Bachelor of Professional Studies degree.

Love of Tech Brings McCrary Back for Degree

Lindsey Ahrens McCrary’s educational goals ultimately led her to pharmacy school at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, but she always remembered that Russellville and Arkansas Tech University were where her story began.

So on Saturday, Dec. 17, she was back at John E. Tucker Coliseum in Russellville to participate in fall commencement ceremonies and receive her Bachelor of Science degree from Tech on the same day she became a Doctor of Pharmacy through UAMS.

Hers was among approximately 700 degrees conferred by Arkansas Tech upon graduates at the conclusion of the fall 2016 semester.

“I met my husband (Michael) right outside of the Ross Pendergraft Library, I was crowned Miss Arkansas Tech on the Witherspoon Auditorium stage and I learned what I was truly made of in McEver Hall,” said McCrary. “As I set foot on the ATU campus, I can’t help but feel such nostalgia and to feel right where I belong. To come back and walk across that stage to receive my diploma is to see a beautiful adventure come full circle.”

McCrary completed three years in the pre-professional pharmacy track at Tech before moving on to UAMS. As her graduation from pharmacy school drew near, she worked with faculty members in the Arkansas Tech College of Natural and Health Sciences to take the steps necessary to complete a degree audit and become a Tech graduate.

“From the life-long friendships that were formed to the education that I received, I can’t describe my experience (at Tech) as anything less than amazing,” said McCrary. “I was given multiple opportunities to be involved on campus, each of which helped shape and mold me into the person I am today. My experience at ATU is unforgettable and one that I will always hold dear to my heart.”

She points to the mentorship she received from Arkansas Tech faculty as one of the main factors in her success at pharmacy school.

“The professors (at Tech) are 100 percent dedicated to their students’ education,” said McCrary. “It’s because of several of them that I am where I am today. I was pushed and challenged to learn more than I ever thought possible. From working as a teaching assistant to doing undergraduate research, or even being involved in a pre-professional club, the opportunities that are offered through (the Arkansas Tech College of Natural and Health Sciences) are endless in helping prepare you for professional school.”

McCrary was so prepared that she was able to balance multiple life changes alongside her successful completion of pharmacy school. In addition to marrying Michael and moving to Malvern, she also became a mother when they welcomed Owen to the family in August 2014.

“Owen has brought so much joy to our lives, and he, along with his dad, have been my driving forces to cross the finish line,” said McCrary. “I also can’t say enough how much I appreciate my parents, Dwane and Anita Ahrens. They have always offered me unfailing love and support. The balance of life with pharmacy school wasn’t always easy, but it most certainly was worth it.”

With her Arkansas Tech University and UAMS degrees in hand, McCrary is prepared to pay forward the opportunities she has received.

“My biggest goal is to impact the lives of others through my career,” said McCrary. “I want to give back to the community what has been sewn into me. Pharmacists have a unique opportunity to help others as one of the most accessible health care professionals. All it takes is one moment of sincerity and kindness to change the course of someone’s day.”