UALR celebrated spring commencement Saturday, May 19, with the largest group of graduates in school history, including the first graduate of the new Ph.D. program in criminal justice.
In addition, the UALR community bid farewell to the first group of 10 Rwandan students who came as UALR Presidential Scholars. They are representatives of the country’s top high school graduates selected for the program that is helping the central African country rebuild its intellectual capital in the wake of its 1994 war and mass genocide.
The first ceremony at 9:30 a.m. in the Jack Stephens Center included graduates of the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, the College of Education, and the College of Professional Studies. The second ceremony was at 3 p.m. with graduates of the Donaghey College of Engineering and Information Technology (EIT), the College of Science and Mathematics, and the College of Business.
The ceremonies were streamed live over the internet. In between the two events at the Stephens Center, the graduation and hooding ceremony for graduates of the William H. Bowen School of Law was held at 12:30 p.m. at the Wally Allen Ballroom of the Statehouse Convention Center.
Tharcisse Karugarama, Rwanda’s minister of justice and attorney general, and his wife attended two of the day’s three ceremonies. Their twin sons, Mark and Matthew, walked in the 3 p.m. ceremony as graduates of the College of Business.
The twins and eight other Rwandan students arrived at UALR four years ago from their homes in a small, war-torn country tucked between the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, and Uganda. Some of them barely were able to speak English. All carried on their shoulders the hopes and aspirations of a nation shattered by war and horrifying genocide now trying to heal itself.
They are the first group of UALR Rwandan Presidential Scholars financed by the Rwandan government and chosen by UALR for their scholarship and drive to help the country rebuild its intellectual capital. “There is a measure of grace on these kids who overcame so much and faced terrible things,” said Lajuanna Magee, director of International Friendship Outreach of Central Arkansas. “To us, it is history. To them, they lived it.”
Also walking in the afternoon ceremony was Ryne Ramaker of Bentonville, leading the procession in the silver robe that signifies him as the 2012 recipient of the Edward L. Whitbeck Memorial Award, UALR’s top academic prize. The senior, who graduated with a B.S. degree in biology, arrived at UALR in the fall 2008 and was selected for UALR’s Donaghey Scholars Program and the Science Scholars Program – the first student accepted to both programs. He graduated with a 4.0 grade point average. Nearly 1,500 students applied for graduation. Here are a few of their stories:
- Gavin Lee, a native of Cambridge, England, was the first graduate of UALR’s Ph.D. program in criminal justice in the morning ceremony. He was a student at the University of California at Irvine, heading to a graduate program in Florida when he met Dr. Jeffrey Walker, who directs UALR’s Ph.D. program in criminal justice. Lee and his wife will be working on criminal justice issues in the Delta after graduation.
- Penn Ross Jackson received a B.A. degree in theatre arts in the morning ceremony. He is the first of his family to graduate from a four-year college. Before he turned 16, he saw his father leave the family, had to live with his mother out of a car on the streets of New Orleans, was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and underwent surgery. Then Hurricane Katrina hit. “Thanks to my mother, I have achieved so much and overcome the odds and adversity to get where I am today, looking into the light of a bright and successful future,” he said. She and Jackson’s step-father will be on hand to witness the milestone. In the fall, he will enroll in the master of fine arts program at the University of California at Irvine to continue his studies in stage management.
- At least one graduate at UALR’s commencement ceremony received his degree in a familiar place – a basketball arena. Scottie Thurman, a former University of Arkansas basketball standout shooting guard and now coach, received a master’s degree in secondary education at Saturday’s morning ceremony.