GGC graduates 158, many firsts, at winter commencement

Almost 160 Georgia Gwinnett College seniors turned their tassels at the Gwinnett Center this afternoon, symbolizing their graduation from college. Today’s commencement represented several firsts for the institution, including the first time it has graduated more than 150 students. This is GGC’s largest graduation class to date, warranting a first-ever move to an off-campus facility large enough for the ceremony. It also produced the college’s 500th graduate.

Almost 160 Georgia Gwinnett College seniors turned their tassels at the Gwinnett Center this afternoon, symbolizing their graduation from college. Today’s commencement represented several firsts for the institution, including the first time it has graduated more than 150 students. This is GGC’s largest graduation class to date, warranting a first-ever move to an off-campus facility large enough for the ceremony. It also produced the college’s 500th graduate.

“This commencement is nearly double the size of our spring commencement earlier this year,” said GGC President Daniel J. Kaufman. “As we pass the four-year mark for our first, smaller freshman classes, we expect the size of our graduating classes to grow dramatically.”

As the graduates crossed the stage, one in particular symbolized a significant milestone for the college. Emily Valentino became the 500th GGC graduate. A resident of Dacula, she attended Central Gwinnett High School and enrolled at Georgia Gwinnett in 2007 as part of its first freshman class.

“I was excited about the early childhood education program at GGC,” said Valentino, who worked part- time for Gwinnett County Public Schools while she pursued her bachelor’s degree. “I have wanted to be a teacher since I was in ninth grade. GGC’s education program was amazing.” She completed her student teaching experience at Parsons Elementary School and hopes to teach for Gwinnett County.

“I hoped that I would be part of the first four-year graduating class,” Valentino said. “But I am very excited and proud to be the 500th graduate. That will always be a special memory for me.”

Valentino is part of another major achievement for the college – the inaugural graduating class for the School of Education. Its first seven graduates include Katie Burrows, Loganville; Stephanie Heinrich, Loganville; Heather Kulp, Lawrenceville; Ann Marie Miller, Bethlehem; Nicole Olano, Lawrenceville; Emily Valentino, Dacula and Erica Wagoner, Bethlehem.  In addition, three other students earned their teacher certifications through the School of Education, including Meagan Eads - English, Hoschton; Bradlee Miller - history, Lawrenceville and Jonathan Mihetiu - history, Dacula.

James Gregorie also represents a first for GGC – the first graduate of its ROTC program. He is a member of a military family and a graduate of Collins Hill High School. He said the program’s emphasis on leadership appealed to him.

“Georgia Gwinnett’s ROTC program teaches you about yourself, as well as how to lead and motivate others,” said the Lawrenceville native and business major. “I participated in the program because I wanted to explore the leadership approaches of the military, in preparation for either enlisting or for pursuing an entrepreneur opportunity after graduation.” 

The college also awarded its first history degrees to Samantha Mihalak and Bradlee Miller of Lawrenceville and Jonathan Mihetiu of Dacula.

“I enrolled at GGC so I could live at home while going to college,” said Mihalak, who transferred from Kennesaw State University. “It was less expensive, more convenient and the program was excellent.” She plans to earn a master’s degree in history so she can pursue a teaching career.

In yet another first, the college graduated its first majors in exercise science, including charter graduate, Rhonda Tingle, one of the original 118 students who enrolled when Georgia Gwinnett first opened its doors in 2006. Now, the campus bustles with nearly 8,000 students.

Originally from Alabama, Tingle grew up in Snellville and graduated from South Gwinnett High School in 1971. She now lives in Loganville. After raising her children, she decided to finally pursue her dream of a full-time career in the health and wellness field. Tingle originally planned to take core courses at Georgia Gwinnett and transfer elsewhere to complete a degree in exercise science.

“I started as a biology major, but when GGC added new majors, I didn’t have to go elsewhere to finish my degree,” she said. “An exercise science program came to me.”  With the promise of a future bachelor’s degree, Tingle secured a position as wellness director with the J.M. Tull Gwinnett YMCA.

Tingle’s fellow inaugural exercise science majors include Amada Coker, Rachel Florio, Nicole Urbizo and Judy Zeitang of Lawrenceville and Paul Derr of Duluth.

Richard Tucker, a member of the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents, presented the keynote address at today’s commencement ceremony.

“In earning your degree, you have done the right thing – the best thing – for your future,” Tucker said. “In this modern, global, interconnected world, the future belongs to the highly educated. So by earning this degree, you have put yourself in the best possible position long-term. And I can’t tell you how important it is to think long term.”

Tucker continued, “Never, ever, underestimate your power as an individual. You can make a difference if you are prepared to take risks and dream dreams … try to make a difference in the world.”

Tingle had this advice for anyone thinking about going to college.

“Just do it,” she said. “There will be sacrifices. You'll think to yourself, ‘why am I doing this?’ But the rewards are there; it is worth it.”

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