Perseverance Delivers Sanders to ATU Degree

Arkansas Tech University provided Willie Sanders with the right framework to complete a college degree.

Now that he has his Bachelor of Professional Studies degree in hand, he is ready to pay that gift forward.

“My thing is to always give back to my community,” said Sanders, who graduated from ATU during spring 2018 commencement ceremonies at John E. Tucker Coliseum in Russellville on Saturday. “God gave me that second chance, and now I’m always trying to give someone else a second chance.”

Sanders, 52 of Benton, said he enrolled at Arkansas Tech a couple of years ago. He had previously attempted to earn an education degree at another institution, but fell just short of his goal. The faculty at ATU ensured that this time would be different.

“The instructors in the College of eTech are very, very, very good,” said Sanders, who has an interest in pursuing graduate study at ATU. “I love each and every one of them. Dr. Tennille Lasker-Scott, Dr. Jeff Aulgur, Jennifer Saxton…all of them. They are amazing. I would advise any non-traditional student who really wants to get their degree to get into the ATU Bachelor of Professional Studies program.”

One stop out from college is far from the greatest challenge Sanders has overcome.

He served 13 years in the U.S. Army as a combat medic. He said his fellow soldiers who weren’t able to come home were on his mind at graduation on Saturday.

In addition, Sanders is winning the battle against substance abuse. He said he has been clean for 16 years.

“You have to go through some tests to have a testimony,” said Sanders. “A lot of people counted me out, but God said, ‘no Willie, you can do it.’ My mom is deceased and I have a sister-in-law who is deceased, and they both encouraged me to get back into school back in January 2013. My wife and kids, they are here, and they’ve been so supportive and encouraged me even when I wanted to quit. I’m just grateful. I’ve got tears of joy right now.”

81-Year Old Grad Checks Item Off Bucket List

Carol Gallaway was seated in the corridor of John E. Tucker Coliseum at Arkansas Tech University on Saturday afternoon, patiently awaiting her turn to walk across the arena floor and receive her degree alongside her fellow members of the ATU Class of 2018.

She didn’t seem to mind the 45-minute wait. After all, it was the culmination of a journey 64 years in the making.

Gallaway, 81 of Searcy, received a Bachelor of Professional Studies degree from Arkansas Tech.

She graduated from high school in Litchfield, Neb., in 1954. Credit hours secured at the University of Nebraska and later through correspondence courses and night classes allowed her to earn a two-year degree and pursue a teaching career.

She served as a substitute teacher for many years while her husband, Richard, worked for SuperSweet Feeds and moved the family from Arkansas to Kansas, from Kansas to Nebraska, from Nebraska to Texas, from Texas to Kansas and finally back around to Arkansas for their retirement years.

Richard passed away in 2010. After serving in the roles of wife, mother and grandmother over a span of 53 years, Carol found herself in need of a new pursuit in life.

“One cold morning after my husband died, I was trying to decide what to do with myself,” said Gallaway. “Across the TV came an ad about completing your degree online. So I called, and I was enrolled that day.”

Soon after, Gallaway was connected with the person she credits as being most instrumental in her degree completion — her academic advisor at ATU, Miranda Senn.

“She was perfect,” said Gallaway. “I also had a couple of instructors, one of which was Jennifer Saxton, that I really liked.”

Gallaway often corresponded with her fellow students through electronic communication, and after an adjustment period she found the experience beneficial.

“They were all a lot younger than me, but they were very nice,” said Gallaway when asked about her fellow students. “We clicked and we did well.”

As a result, Gallaway has achieved one of her life’s ambitions.

“This was on my bucket list,” said Gallaway. “I wanted my grandkids and great-grandkids to realize they can do it. Never give up.”

Opportunity Awaits for ATU Class of 2018

Luis Campos Alcocer understands the true value of the Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree he received from Arkansas Tech University on Saturday morning.

“It’s just a piece of paper,” said Alcocer, “but it gives you the opportunity to become anything that you want to.”

Members of the ATU Class of 2018 each have that opportunity after they received 1,350 degrees during five commencement ceremonies concluding the 109th academic year at Arkansas Tech Thursday through Saturday at John E. Tucker Coliseum.

Alcocer is from DeQueen. He chose ATU because of the management and marketing major in the College of Business. By his senior year, his achievements earned him the ATU Robert A. Young Outstanding Business Award and a job as a recruiter for J.B. Hunt.

“We had really good classes such as management information systems, business policy and business statistics,” said Alcocer. “I feel like it really prepared me for the future. Dr. (Jack) Tucci was my advisor, and he really opened up my eyes to the opportunities that I have. Being a college graduate opens a lot of doors.”

One of Alcocer’s fellow graduates has some unfinished business on the gridiron before he walks through that open door.

Chris Eastburn of Pearcy received his Bachelor of Science degree in biology on Saturday morning, but he will return to ATU classrooms during the fall 2018 semester and complete his final season of eligibility as the starting halfback for the Wonder Boys’ football program.

“I came on a recruiting visit, and everybody talked about family and a close-knit culture,” said Eastburn, reflecting on the beginning of his Tech journey. “I got swept away by it. After that visit, I knew this was where I had to be.”

Eastburn said the helpfulness of the staff and faculty in the College of Natural and Health Sciences as well as small class sizes were keys to his success. He also became involved in the larger community, performing volunteer community service with his Wonder Boys teammates and serving on the ATU Mayoral Advisory Council.

“What made me want to get involved was the opportunity to give back,” said Eastburn, who will apply to dental school. “ATU has given so much to me, and I wanted to share that gift with others.”

An attractive scholarship package is the gift that initially drew David Ryan Williams of Hot Springs to Arkansas Tech. He completed a Bachelor of Science degree in biology on Saturday and will proceed to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

“Tech handed out the best scholarships of any school in Arkansas I could find that was a prestigious school,” said Williams. “I’ve studied every day of my life here, but I also met a lot of great people and good friends. The friendship you find here is the best.”

Williams pointed to Dr. Ivan Still, associate professor of biology, as his most important faculty mentor.

“He really cares and wants you to succeed,” said Williams. “That’s the kind of professor that gets students to be successful in life, so I really appreciate everything he did. Arkansas Tech has a good pre-med committee that helps students through the steps of what they need to do to get to medical school. There are more one-on-one opportunities with faculty here. All of my classes only had around 30 students in them, and you don’t get that at larger universities.”

Blake Hurley of Clarksville has always been well acquainted with ATU due to its proximity to her hometown, but she recalls a visit day during her senior year in high school as the clinching moment in her decision making process.

“I just loved the atmosphere when I came up for Time Out for Tech,” said Hurley.

On Saturday morning, she returned to the site of Time Out for Tech, Tucker Coliseum, to receive her Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree.

Beyond the classroom, Hurley has been active in such student organizations as the Presidential Leadership Cabinet, Student Government Association and the Public Relations Student Society of America.

“I would not be the person I am today if I was not so involved,” said Hurley. “I’m so excited, and I’m happy that my hard work has paid off.”

Gary Fryer knows about hard work. A graduate of Little Rock Hall High School, Fryer came to Arkansas Tech in 1964 to play football for head coach Marvin “Shorty” Salmon. He was a letterman as a back-up tackle on the Wonder Boys’ 1964 Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference championship team.

Fryer dropped out of college following the spring 1965 semester and returned to Little Rock to pursue a career in his family’s furniture business.

More than a half-century passed before Fryer returned to ATU in fall 2016 to continue his studies. On Saturday night, he completed a journey 54 years in the making when he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in history at the age of 72.

“I’m kind of an emotional fellow, so I’m afraid I’ll bawl my way up there,” said Fryer before the ceremony. “I’m proud of a whole bunch of kids I know. The people that impress the heck out of me are non-traditional students in their 30s and 40s who have families, that have changed out of careers and are sacrificing to get a higher education.”

As a non-traditional student himself, Fryer took the additional step of pledging membership in Kappa Sigma fraternity upon his return to Arkansas Tech. He was joined in the ATU Class of 2018 by three of his fraternity brothers.

“We had a farewell ceremony, and I wasn’t sure what they would say about me,” said Fryer. “They had some interesting insights that I got a kick out of, and I felt like they were genuine appreciations of our friendship. We have a small fraternity, and it was touching. I felt like I really was a part of the fraternity.”

Fryer represented one end of the age spectrum among the ATU Class of 2018. His classmate, Alyssa Marie Lindsey of Harrison, engaged in a special graduation project designed to connect with a younger version of herself. She sewed her own commencement ceremony dress.

“I recently read an article that said you should do things that make your 8-year old self proud,” said Lindsey. “I’ve loved sewing since I was just a little bitty kid, so I thought making my own dress to wear to my college graduation would be pretty appropriate for that and special.”

Lindsey earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English on Saturday night.

“I had family that went (to ATU) before me, so I thought it would be good from a family tradition standpoint,” said Lindsey of her decision to attend Tech. “I also just really love the atmosphere of the campus. It’s homey and comfortable.”

2018 Spring Commencement: 10am Ceremony / Hall of Distinction Luncheon

2018 Spring Commencement: 2pm Ceremony | 5/13/18

2018 Spring Commencement: 6pm Ceremony | 5/13/18

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.”