Meet the Class of 2017

Sunday, May 7, 2017
Scene from 2016 commencement

Among the graduates who will walk across the stage in Saturday’s commencement ceremony, there are countless stories, dreams and motivations. Here are just a few:

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Bridgette Sappington

Nursing school, overnight clinical shifts, and pitching for a nationally ranked softball team is a lot for a college to-do list, but it’s something that Bachelor of Science in Nursing graduate Bridgette Sappington said was why she came to Rockhurst University — only a handful of schools would allow her to follow both passions.

It was not always easy to balance the two —practice on weekday afternoons and games on weekends mean Sappington often took overnight clinical shifts. Some days, she would leave work at 8 a.m. and report to the field in time for a 2 p.m. start. But one of those outings, on March 31, resulted in a program first — a perfect game against Maryville University — though she said she didn’t necessarily feel dialed in.

“Honestly, I was just trying not to hit anyone,” Sappington said.

She was backed up behind the plate by her battery-mate, roommate and nursing program peer, Lexie Zuniga. In addition to her teammates, Sappington said children — who she sees both as part of her education and in her future position in the pediatrics wings at Overland Park Regional hospital — also inspire her.

“They’re really incredible,” she said. “No matter how much they’re going through, they still find a way to make you smile.”

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Sarah Czirr

You could call her a rebel. Sarah Czirr has learned many important lessons during her experience at Rockhurst. Among them the appeal of dancing to the beat of one’s own drummer.

“I realized that I needed fulfillment by going my own path,” she said.

At Rockhurst, Czirr has served as an orientation leader, a volunteer with Literacy KC, took part in a 10-week summer internship at a Jesuit school in rural Uganda and helped organizations around the city as part of Google’s Community Leaders program.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration degree with a marketing emphasis, Czirr is planning another adventure — a solo motorcycle trip through the American West. She said the trip is a rare chance to hit pause and take a step back before the start of her post-collegiate life.

“I had many job opportunities, but I need time for reflection and enjoyment before I get into the real world,” she said.

But Czirr can never be accused of sitting still. After that trip, Sarah will travel to Africa to build houses for those in need, an opportunity she said she came up through her internship in Uganda. 

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Michael Lydon-Lorson

Michael Lydon-Lorson was looking for a college where he could continue using his skills as a pitcher. But he admitted it wasn’t the only criteria.

Lydon-Lorson was also looking for a place where he could belong and explore some new opportunities. And from serving as an orientation leader to a member of Voices for Justice social justice group, the political science and Spanish major has taken advantage of those opportunities.

“Rockhurst was kind of the perfect mix of things for me,” he said.

Those activities have even converged in incredible ways — during a service immersion trip his junior year to Nicaragua, his group met Brian Dozier, All-Star second-baseman for the Minnesota Twins. He said the group played a pickup baseball game with the people of the town.

In August, Lydon-Lorson will begin an assignment with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, working to provide legal assistance to immigrants as part of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

“It’s definitely a time when the need is great, not just on the number of people who need that assistance but the intention side of it, too,” he said.

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Taylor Jackson

When she was young, Taylor Jackson would put Band-Aids on her pets. The soon-to-be biology graduate wanted to help them.

Like the Band-Aids, the urge to help animals stuck. This week Jackson takes the next step in the long process of becoming a veterinarian, one of four pre-veterinary track seniors from Rockhurst this year who were accepted to veterinary school.

Jackson will start in the fall at the University of Missouri-Columbia. And while her major never changed at Rockhurst, she said she has throughout her time at Rockhurst. A member of Beta Beta Beta biology honors society, one-time orientation leader and a former member of the University’s cheer squad, she said college taught her foremost how to balance numerous activities and responsibilities.

But it was also through her education, and a shadowing experience at Spay and Neuter Kansas City, that she realized the kind of impact that veterinarians can have on communities, and pointed toward a potential future path providing veterinary services for communities in need.

“I saw a lot of people as who could not afford care for their pets I shadowed veterinarians ,” she said. “I think there is a lot of need in these communities.”

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Ali Lard

Compared to other programs, visual art is a relatively small community on the Rockhurst campus, said psychology major and fine arts minor Ali Lard.

However, that sort of environment has made all the difference for her — that small group of art-focused students makes for a supportive community, something that she said has really helped her own art interest and process develop.

“I grew up with a crafty family, but I didn’t realize how much I liked art until I got here,” she said.

As part of her process, Lard uses bits from watercolor and other mediums to create large-scale collages in the shape of animals, inspired by the juxtaposition of colorful animals who are also poisonous.

In July, Lard will travel to Colorado for an intensive workshop on the Anderson Ranch Arts Center, the recipient of one of two scholarships nationally from the Francis Family Foundation. The experience will not only deepen her technique and appreciation of other mediums like ceramics, but help her continue to get out of her comfort zone.

“I’m a planner,” she said. “So I’m going out on a limb to do this. But I love how meditative the process is. By being able to create my art, I’m able to discover myself in a new way.”

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Aleeyah Thompson

Even Aleeyah Thompson admits that the story she is about to tell might sound cliché.

Thompson balances being a leader in the University’s Black Student Union, volunteer choreographer and coach for an Olathe-based youth cheerleading squad, leader in the Y Talks program for young girls at a local YMCA, and holds down multiple jobs. But she was going through a difficult time when Bill Kriege, associate director of campus ministry, approached her in the hall to encourage her to sign up for a service immersion trip. Initially skeptical, she finally signed up for a trip to Jamaica. It was a turning point, especially when the priest delivered two separate homilies that week that touched on the issues on her heart.

“I was like, something is speaking to me here. Sunlight was coming through the church windows,” she said. “It was one of those TV moments that you’re like that doesn’t happen in real life. It completely happened in real life.”

She came away with insights about herself and about what she wants to eventually do with her talents in occupational therapy — provide the services that are so badly needed in places like Jamaica. And as she moves on to a master's degree in Rockhurst's competitive OT program, Thompson said that dream is what continues to motivate her.

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Decho Valev

Adjusting to college for Decho Valev was more than just figuring out how to live on his own.

As a native of Bulgaria who had come to America for his senior year in high school after trying to jumpstart a career as a professional tennis player, the finance/accounting major said he also had to adjust to the differences between college in his home and here.

“In Bulgarian universities, there are no college sports, fraternities or sororities, student senate, honors society and many other aspects are missing,” he said. “Having a full college experience and understanding what people mean and associate that with when they talked about all these activities, that was a big challenge.”

Valev fit right in — he was a member of Delta Sigma Pi business fraternity, the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, economics club, Honors Society, IClub and a tutor at the Aylward-Dunn Learning Center, all while also playing tennis for the Hawks.

He’s off next to New York City, where he’ll have both an accounting internship to start his career and a job as a coach at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy, all while studying for the CPA exam.

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Shelby Johnson

Graduating from college is a big step for Shelby Johnson in more ways than perhaps the average Rockhurst student.

A native of Kansas City, Johnson is the first in her family to graduate from college, making Saturday’s commencement ceremony a milestone for her and her parents, who pushed her to pursue higher education.

“I saw them struggle as I was growing up,” she said. “And I wanted to do something that they weren’t able to do to make them proud.”

There is an added importance — Johnson said her father was diagnosed this year with stage-four cancer, and that him being able to see her walk across the stage was a crucial goal.

It wasn’t easy — Johnson worked full-time as she earned her undergraduate degrees in communication sciences and disorders and psychology — but found that the smaller campus and availability of resources made Rockhurst a perfect fit.

With her degree in hand, Johnson said she will start a position at Kansas City’s Milestone Academy, helping provide therapy for skills that many take for granted.

“Speaking is a big part of everyone’s life, and when you lose that ability, that’s a big deal,” she said.