Neag Grads Lauded on Sunny Mother’s Day

About 200 Neag School of Education students received bachelor’s degrees and sixth-year diplomas in educational specialties at the May 9 graduation ceremonies in the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts.

“I’ve been telling him to be a school teacher his whole life … summers off,” Paul Hurst said before the proceedings. He was speaking of his son, Michael Thomas Hurst, a teacher preparation student in secondary English. Paul Hurst works in the Hamden schools and says he and his son often discuss philosophy. “He’s an all-around kid, very cerebral and physical. He could have done anything.”

But the day mostly belonged to the mothers. Barbara Simone, mother of athletic training graduate Erica Simone, complained just a bit about the 50-degree chill in the air. “We’re freezing. It was 94 degrees when we left” Cocoa Beach, Fla.

Erica Simone’s aunt and cousins in Cheshire and Southington – her family support in Connecticut – also attended the event. Having left Connecticut years before, Erica didn’t even know all of her local kin. She told her mother there was a really cute guy in her class, “and I said, ‘that’s your cousin,’” Barbara Simone says with a laugh.

Her daughter’s love of playing soccer and perhaps her bad knees led her to her concentration on athletic training, Simone said. “She decided she’d rather fix the people. Her dream was to come to UConn – out-of-state tuition and all.” Erica Simone, honored as a New England Scholar, will pursue a master’s degree at the University of South Carolina on a generous scholarship.

Amanda Courtney Powell’s graduation day support included her grandparents, sister from Chicago, aunt and mother, Berneda Powell, who said her daughter loved to play school as a child. Grandmother Renee Powell said the family wasn’t surprised by Amanda’s path toward teaching high school math. “We kind of knew this from quite a while back. She’s a go-getter…not going to stop ’til she gets there.”

Before the colorful procession of degree candidates and robed faculty from the Gentry Building, Dean Thomas DeFranco outlined the ceremonies for the auditorium full of supporters. The dean in purple, keynote speaker Geno Auriemma in black and white, and bedecked faculty filed onto the stage as marshals in trademark Henry VIII-style blue velvet hats assisted.

The Community School of the Arts Ceremonial Brass Quintet played prelude and processional music, and music education degree candidate Paige Revens sang the National Anthem.

After a welcome by Associate Dean Marijke Kehrhahn and remarks by Neag School Alumni Society President Sandra Justin, the dean introduced the speaker, UConn’s winning women’s basketball coach.

DeFranco relayed an anecdote about Auriemma’s helping him recruit a top specialist to Neag. “A very generous offer from a very busy person,” he said of the coach, praising his record on the court but moreso his record as an inspiration to his players.

Demonstrating his signature ease with public speaking, Auriemma called out to Jacquie Fernandes, one of his players in the crowd of Neag graduates, which also included NFL pros Donald Brown, a member of the Baltimore Colts, and Marcus Easley, drafted by the Buffalo Bills. Brown made good on his promise to his parents to finish his degree as he played his first year of professional football. On this occasion the sports celebrities were careful to avoid any fanfare and to blend into their academic field of contemporaries.

Auriemma urged the graduates to remember how they felt about teachers who were inaccessible or who lacked understanding, and resolve to be better.

“You’re not creating derivatives on Wall Street. You’re creating a life. You’re creating hope and you’re creating a future for young people,” he said.

The dean then recognized students who had achieved academic distinction, and degrees were conferred, as the candidates crossed the stage to the sound of their names being called.

Bachelor of science degrees went to 143 students in all. Of the 45 kinesiology students, 10 majored in social science-sport/leisure, 24 in exercise science and 11 in athletic training.

Other bachelor degree recipients, who will return next year to complete a master of arts in education, included 39 in elementary education, 12 in special education, ten in history, ten in English, six in mathematics, four in biological science and one each in eath science and general science. Fifteen future music educators were awarded with dual bachelor’s degrees, one in music education and the other in music.

Sixty-seven sixth-year certificates were awarded to graduates who pursued their specialty beyond a master’s degree.

At the end, the graduates and dignitaries recessed into the brisk, sunny day before attending a reception in the atrium at Gentry.

Patty Hess’s sons, Zachary, 12, and Nicholas, 10, were pretty proud of their mom’s sixth-year diploma in the administrator preparation program. “It’s pretty amazing. It’s hard to go back to school after about 15 years,” Zachary said before the family took off for a Mother’s Day brunch.

Hess of Vernon said she was actively seeking employment as a principal. “Like Geno said, you want to impact students. Then you impact a life. As a principal, you want to impact more than groups of students, you want to impact whole schools.”

Related Story: Class of 2010: Lisa Mishriky, MA, Neag School of Education