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Recognizing Excellence Meet the 2022 Distinguished Graduates

These 25 WGU alumni are examples of inspiration and dedication. Their work and volunteer efforts go above and beyond, making a significant impact in their communities and career fields.

Congratulations, graduates. We are proud of you.


Donna Law

B.S. Business Management (2016)
Cedar City, Utah

Donna Law enjoyed career success in business but could only advance so far without a degree. Thanks to the encouragement of her employer, she enrolled in WGU’s business management bachelor’s degree program. In the middle of her studies, Donna was diagnosed with cancer, but she wasn’t going to let that stand in her way of earning a degree. She beat cancer, finished her degree, and has since gone on to earn a master’s degree. She’s now the Executive Director of Development and Government Relations at Southern Utah University. Among her successes, her advocacy work has led to securing funding for a $42 million academic classroom building, which will open in 2023.

Donna is active in her local community and serves as a governor-appointed member of the Utah Transportation Commission. She remains committed to raising money through charity events and encouraging those battling cancer to be brave and to feel beautiful and loved.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: "My experience at WGU did, truly, change my life. I didn’t realize until my closest friends pointed out to me the confidence and assurance I developed and demonstrated having completed my degree. WGU allowing me to share my experiences, hoping other adult learners might be encouraged to complete their degrees, is very rewarding. I am an enthusiastic advocate for the difference that a WGU degree can make in the lives of adult learners."

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "As a fundraising professional, I was part of a team of people that raised more than $40 million for the Beverley Taylor Sorenson Center for the Arts on the campus of Southern Utah University. The Beverley Center opened in 2017 and is home to three theatres and administrative spaces for the Tony Award-winning Utah Shakespeare Festival where I spent 10 years working in marketing and communications. The Southern Utah Museum of Art (SUMA) with its dynamic and engaging Stillman Sculpture Court is also part of this community gathering place. It fills my heart and soul with joy and satisfaction as I see hundreds of theatre goers experiencing Shakespeare under the stars, and children with their parents pondering the bronze figures. The Beverley Center has changed the character of our campus and community and will impact arts experiences in Cedar City, Utah for decades."

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "Success is getting it done. Whatever the goal, whatever the challenges enroute that need to be overcome, getting it done represents success to me."

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "My greatest challenge was acknowledging that a college degree would make a difference. I had a successful career, was enjoying my work, and felt as though I could accomplish anything I wanted. All that was true. But I learned there could, indeed, be more. I was diagnosed with breast cancer midway through my studies. My focus on learning and achieving distracted me from the cancer, my treatment, and my recovery."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: "I worked in higher ed for more than 17 years before taking the steps to complete my degree. Time was the issue, even more than money. As a full-time working professional, I didn’t have time (6-8 years) to spend in a traditional university classroom earning six credits a semester. WGU, with its competency-based model, allowed me to apply my lifetime of learning and experience to complete my degree in 17 months. WGU has meant time and money. A degree at my pace and salary increases of more than 30% since my graduation."

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "You can do this! Be confident and persistent. Make the extra minutes and hours to expand your learning. Use the resources WGU makes available such as the preassessments so you can focus your studies on what you need to learn, not what you already know. Call on your course mentors to make the best use of your time. When you finish your WGU degree, you will gain confidence you didn’t know you were missing. That confidence will empower you to be your best self."

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "As I reflect on this question today, commencement day at SUU, my greatest inspiration would be my parents. My mother was an immigrant from Denmark in 1951, post WWII. Her courage brought her to a new country at the age of 17 where she learned a new language, pursued education, worked to raise the money to bring her mother and brother to American where she met my dad and raised a beautiful family. My father was a military man and instilled in me a love of God and country. He and my mom started their life together shortly after completing his Army basic training. While working and raising a family, he continued his education ever so slowly but ever persistent as time and money would allow. I remember attending his graduation when I was 13, along with three of my siblings. My dad was 36. Throughout my life, they have always been great examples."

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "I look forward to continuing to do the work I love as long as I love it! Retirement is likely within 5-7 years. As I consider what that might look like, I anticipate my time will be filled in service to community and family. I like to contribute positively and work to make a difference, however small. I also know that learning will continue to be part of my endeavors and I will be a life-long proponent of adult learning." 

 

Antonio Romayor, Jr.

B.S. Information Technology Management (2019)
M.Ed. Learning and Technology (2020)
El Centro, California

Antonio Romayor, Jr. is a chief technology officer at El Centro Elementary School District near the U.S.-Mexico border, where more than 83% of students are socioeconomically disadvantaged. He completed his Master of Education in Learning and Technology degree at WGU in 2020. In his more than 20 years at the district, Antonio has implemented several programs that have benefited students, including a 1:1 computer take-home program and a digital responsibility curriculum for all students.  He has also helped increase access to computer science studies for students while helping the district establish distance-learning methods during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

He's been recognized as the 2017 Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) Administrator of the Year for Imperial and San Diego County. He was accepted to and completed the California IT in Education (CITE) Certified Chief Technology Program and the Education Innovation Alliance (EIA) Chief Innovation Officer Program, and he was selected as the Imperial Valley Computer-Using Educators (CUE) Administrator of the Year.

He then went on to become a director-at-large of the California IT in Education (CITE), and held the same position at the Imperial Valley Wellness Foundation, an organization that helps underserved populations through grants to increase health awareness.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: "The WGU Distinguished Graduate Award is a recognition that represents and recognizes the talented professional and personal support structure I have the privilege of having. Receiving this award would not be possible without my career mentors, the team I support, and my loving family and friends who have given of themselves selflessly."

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "My greatest professional accomplishment is mentoring others who seek to further their careers or improve the services at their respective organizations. I’m also deeply proud of how we’ve transformed professional development for educators. Our efforts have changed the education experience for thousands of students!"

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "Success is seeing confidence, contentment, and drive in others. Knowing that we’re creating opportunities and fostering environments for others to succeed, grow, and give back is what success looks like to me."

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "I’ve overcome countless challenges. Of course, some challenges are more significant compared to others, but in my opinion, they have all demanded the same to overcome. To overcome life’s challenges, one must accept things as they are, have contingencies, reflect, and execute. It’s not what we can or cannot do but, more importantly, how we accomplish the things we want to do. None of this is easy, we’ll need help often, but neither is it impossible."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you?

A: "Others may think academia is not for them but earning a college degree is vastly more than solely a person’s intellectual capacity. Earning my degree from WGU demonstrates effort, resilience, and pride. That is what earning my degree from WGU means to me." 

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "Hang in there! The road to graduation day may be full of surprises, challenges, and heartache. But the journey is not without hope! WGU offers its students the resources and assistance needed to find success. So reach out often, complete work weekly, and remind yourselves daily that you are not alone."

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "My inspiration is not a single person or group of people. Instead, I’m inspired by everyday things - a sunset, a beautiful melody, a delicious meal, or a kindhearted gesture, the sharing of memorable moments that become a part of us forever. All of these things, and so many others, inspire me."

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "I’m hopeful for the future! I look forward to furthering my career, earning a doctoral degree, and publishing as many books as others would read. In the meantime, I’m committed to helping others both in my personal and professional lives and enjoying the journey."

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: "I would like to thank my family for their love and support. I would also like to extend my appreciation and gratitude to my mentors and professional colleagues for investing their time in me and guiding me towards contentment and success. Finally, I would like to thank WGU for creating an educational institution for working adults (and others) that rewards diligence and grit." 

Malick Krubally

B.S. Nursing (2014)
Lynnwood, Washington

Malick Krubally received his Bachelor of Science in Nursing from WGU in 2014. He went on to work as a charge nurse in the interventional radiology department of a Swedish hospital and received two nominations for the prestigious DAISY Award for exceptional nurses. Later, he created a WhatsApp nonprofit Diaspora group to support community development and charity projects for the people of Koba Kunda in the Gambia, West Africa. He also currently leads a nonprofit group of professionals who aim to provide quality healthcare to address the crisis in West Africa.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: "This award means everything for me since I highly respect the recognition from such a reputable institution and that gives me a sense of self fulfillment.

It serves as an affirmation for the great work there is to do and a courage as well as motivation to carry on doing even greater things."

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "Contributing to healthcare as a direct care giver and the ability to excel in doing so. My WGU BSN and working as a charge nurse in an outstanding hospital and making a difference in helping others to reach that status"

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "Professional growth in completing a Doctorate in Nursing Practice.

Being able to reach more people and touch souls in the form of philanthropic work."  

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "Being from a family as the first generation degree holder requires a lot of resilience to overcome challenges.

Being an immigrant in another country does not always present you with the same opportunities and a level playing ground. This requires working extra hard to get to where you want to be."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: "WGU degree means a great deal of self fulfillment and positive self concept as it open the doors to limitless possibilities in personal development and positive contribution to society. Earning the degree reassures me that anything is possible."

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "Always have a vision in life and let your actions lead you to discovering your vision. With effective time management, self discipline and commitment nothing is impossible or out of reach. Keep dreaming and keep believing that your dreams could be your reality if you are ready to do what it takes."

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "My sister’s resilience to support me was outstanding and she is my inspiration and my number one supporter."

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "I am excelling in my career as a radiology nurse and planning on enrolling into a doctorate in Nurse Anesthesia."

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: "Life has been tough but through resilience and commitment, success is near. I enjoyed having great relationships with great mentors and advisers that keep me going. Engaging in philanthropic work to uplift others provides me with gratification, and an opportunity to serve beyond the walls of a hospital structure." 

Jane Chung

B.S. Sales Management (2016)
MBA IT Management (2017) 
M.S. Cybersecurity and Information Assurance (2020)
San Jose, California

Jane Chung has more than 20 years of experience in the development and monetization of high-growth business opportunities among corporate customers, partners, and cloud providers. She has experience as an innovative strategic thinker, able to recruit, motivate, and maintain high-level talent for high-performing sales, service, and business development roles.

Jane is Managing Director of Deloitte & Touche, LLP and focuses on exponentially growing cybersecurity and services in the marketplace.

Prior to joining Deloitte, Jane was the Vice President of public cloud at Palo Alto Networks, the global leader in cybersecurity networks, where she led a team of business development reps, evangelists, and engagement managers. Jane has advanced her career through her hard work and her four degrees, three of which are from WGU.

Outside of work, Jane enjoys expanding her education and learning. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in cybersecurity and is set to accomplish this goal by 2023.

She is also active in serving to promote hands-on education for underserved communities. She partners with the City Peace Project, which provides educational opportunities for children of low-income families in Silicon Valley.

Jane is passionate about protecting sensitive data from increasingly sophisticated cybersecurity threats. Jane is accredited as a Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH) and Computer Hacking Forensics Investigator (CHFI). As a woman in a male-dominated industry, Jane has earned the respect of her colleagues and shines as a positive example to young women who will follow in her footsteps. She has even created a blog to serve as a guide and resource.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: "The Distinguished Graduate Award signifies that WGU has been a great source and support for my education as an adult. I am very grateful for the WGU online education which revolutionized how we can learn while working, being a parent, and spouse."

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "My greatest professional accomplishment lies ahead. I would like to be the role model for all minority women that anything is possible because we are strong and can multi-task."

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "Success means giving back to the community and evangelizing the possibilities of receiving affordable education. We can change our future, the future of our children and the generation to follow." 

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "I had to be very disciplined about time management and be diligent in reviewing every available hour I had. I had to put the most important things in my life first."

 

Q: What earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: "Obtaining degrees from WGU means confidence in the school and myself that I can achieve anything. My journey with WGU has made it possible for me to be more disciplined with my time."

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "Fellow Night Owls, continue to advance because you will finish your degree and you can take a break. In addition, after the necessary break, take a look at other degrees with WGU."

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "My inspiration is my husband and my daughter. They have been incredibly supportive of my educational journey with WGU."

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "I am presently pursuing my doctoral studies in cybersecurity. My objective is to graduate in mid-2023."

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: "A number of my friends are participating in a scholarship program for WGU minority women in STEM through the Deloitte Foundation. I hope that after you graduate, you can financially help a student who needs WGU's help."

Catherine Spencer

M.A. Science Education Biology (5–12)(2016)
El Cajon, California 

Catherine Spencer is in her ninth year as an eighth-grade science teacher at College Preparatory Middle School in Spring Valley, California. During her career, she has developed engaging science teaching plans that have helped her students perform at the top levels, including testing at 90%+. However, Catherine’s overall mission is to see her students succeed in life. She is active in community service, mentoring her students through Builders Club philanthropies such as UNICEF and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and volunteering through scientific opportunities like the Army Educational Outreach Program. 

Q: What does this award mean to you? 

A: “To be recognized by the university where I received my upper-level degree overwhelms me with pride and humbles me to the core. I always choose to give recognition to my students to celebrate their successes and motivate them to accomplish their goals, and to receive recognition for simply going where my heart and brain lead and following my choices amazes me.”

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment? 

A: “My greatest professional accomplishment was when I was chosen as a presenter for the 2017 California League of Schools Annual Conference in Sacramento CA. I presented “Collaborative, Hands-on Science Activities” demonstrating multiple NGSS hands-on labs and activities for life, earth, and physical sciences that were advantageous for both upper elementary and middle school. I was also chosen to present the same topic at the 2017 CLS Summer STEAM Camp.”

 

Q: What does success look like to you? 

A: “Success in education is when I see my students’ light bulbs turn on which may take a moment or a month depending on the student. I see their light bulbs turn on when their eyes widen, their heads nod, and their breaths catch when they understand a topic. They smile, if only in their eyes, at their success.”

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today? 

A: “In 2009, I started my teaching career at the age of 48 when I was divorced. I was a single mom with two sons at home, and I worked daily as a substitute teacher for 3 ½ years before receiving my first teaching contract. To help pay bills, I worked as a food sample server at Target and Ralphs on Saturdays for two years.”

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you?  

A: “Earning my Master of Arts degree in Science Education allowed me to enhance my scientific expertise in my chosen field, increase my earning ability in my career, and improve my pedagogical skills for my classroom. I have been able to use the knowledge gained through WGU to help make my students successful in the classroom as I reach toward my career goals both financial and academic.”

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls? 

A: “My advice for my fellow Night Owls is two-fold and filled with nevers.  #1 You’re never too old, and #2 Never, never, never quit.”

 

Q: Who is your inspiration? 

A: “My inspiration is my grandmother Faye Chambers Thompson who became a nurse at the age of 51. Her husband had passed, but she had nine children to feed. This was in the 1940s, and I find it incredible that my grandmother had the strength and wherewithal to complete a nursing degree during that time period in America at her age with her family challenges.”

 

Q: What does the future look like for you? 

A: “Teaching is a calling that came to me later in life through volunteering at my sons’ schools. I will continue to teach until I retire in several years, then work as a substitute teacher and find outlets for my volunteering.”

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share? 

A: “Thank you so much for the opportunity to be a finalist for the Distinguished Graduate Award at WGU.”

David Statum

B.S. Nursing (2013)
M.S. Nursing Education (2014)
Estill Spring, Tennessee

To help his community during the COVID-19 pandemic, David Statum, who earned both a BSN and MSN through WGU and recently completed his doctoral degree, began giving food to his neighbors who were in need. Word spread quickly as the community learned about this much-needed resource. Now, David and his team are able to serve more than 2,500 people every week. David even helps other neighboring communities by sharing and distributing food there as well. He resigned from his job as coordinator and nurse psychotherapist for court-sponsored addictions treatment programs in order to help others in a full-time capacity. Additionally, David collected and distributed 150,000 pounds of food to help other communities who were impacted by natural disasters, including flooding in western Middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky. David credits his education for his ability to help others.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: "This award is important to me because being a WGU student changed the trajectory of my life. The faculty and my mentors spoke such hope into my life as I was working toward my educational goals, that being recognized by my WGU family really matters to me. WGU is such a well-respected and industry-recognized learning institution, that my peers and community leaders know that my degree from WGU represents an incredible amount of hard-earned, demonstrated competency, that they respect my knowledge and wisdom that is unique to a WGU alumnus."

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "My greatest professional accomplishment is beginning a community-based free food (groceries) distribution program. In three years, we have grown from a little food (mostly bread) to serving a few families to distributing 100,000 pounds of food every week. The 100,000 pounds of groceries is the equivalent to 83,000 meals each week, 1,500 families per week, $250,000 in retail food value, and $12 million in retail food value last year. The food that we share with the community each week is rescued food from various grocery stores, distribution warehouses, rejected food from semi-trucking companies. We strive each week to share the best food items that we can rescue, so that each family that we serve receives at least 66 pounds of good-quality food products each week. The hunger and food insecurity need has increased in our community, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so we’re serving more families in more locations in more modalities that we ever imagined that was possible. We have a large footprint in Middle Tennessee. We have also responded to communities in need, following natural disasters in West Tennessee and Southern Kentucky. Hunger and food insecurity is a nursing diagnosis, so I am serving well within my profession."

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "Determinants of success changed for me a few years ago. I was focused on building a successful counseling practice, being financially secure, and being comfortable. After a while of nagging health problems that often lacked a definitive diagnosis, I had to quit two jobs that were important to me; university faculty, and later, creator and administrator of successful mental health programming for local court systems. I was proud of my professional and educational accomplishments – completing my fifth university degree: a doctorate degree. Health issues that resulted in a cancer scare made me refocus my priorities and become more sensitive to the needs of others. My determinants of success were no longer receiving trophies and recognition of my accomplishments, and now, those determinants are in getting much needed resources to those in need. I would consider any recognition as a platform to share the message of hope to those who need help the most."

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "Building upon my answer to the previous question, health issues were my biggest challenge with reaching my goals. Success looks different in 2022 than when I was a WGU student. I earned my BSN and MSN degrees at WGU. I have learned from these challenges that overcoming them can become a platform to helping others. Also, learning how to grow our free food distribution to reach more people required an infrastructure that I had to quickly learn how to build. Securing warehouse space, forklifts, box trucks, and distribution space was a learning curve, but all of this is necessary to rescue food and distribution it to those in need. Our food distribution program grew dramatically and quickly due to the Covid-19 pandemic, so much of our work has been to build initiatives to get resources to those who need them."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: "Earning my degrees (BSN and MSN) from WGU are important to me because it not only shows successful completion of an academic program, it also demonstrates an industry-respected recognition of competency of academic and profession-required skills and knowledge. When industry leaders see that I have not one, but two degrees from WGU, they are certain that I am professionally qualified to join their teams, and I can add a unique layer of experience and knowledge to contribute to their goals."

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "I am far from an expert on anything, but I would advise other Night Owls to keep reaching for their educational and professional goals. The hard work pays off, and not only will potential employers and peers know that you are competent to offer the skills and input that they need, you can have an added layer of self-confidence in knowing that you are competent for any position or project that you are interested in pursuing because of the documented and certified proofs that you have reached professionally-defined educational benchmarks and you have the diploma and certifications to support that."

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "My grandmother is a huge inspiration for me. Early in life, she was diagnosed with polio which caused paralysis in her left leg, among other things. Medical experts of the day explained to her and her single father that she would never walk. Not only did my grandmother work her way out of a wheelchair and walk, she did anything that she sought to accomplish, and that included dancing with the legendary singer/dancer/actor Fred Astaire when she shared a stage with him at a USO program during World War II."

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "My future looks bright, I suppose. Our food distribution program is growing to meet the needs of the families, friends, and neighbors in my community and geographic region; additionally, we’re developing a mechanism to support other organizations of like-minded, community-based free food distribution programs to help end hunger and food insecurity in Middle Tennessee."

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: "It is always important to reach for your goals. Even when things look bleak at best, keep moving, keep doing, keep learning, and keep loving. Loving yourself is not a grandiose concept, but it is necessary one; take time to reflect and work from rest rather than working out of pure adrenaline. Your best inspirations can come in those moments when you think that you can’t do any more. You’re not necessarily called to be a superstar to the masses, you’re called to be a superstar within your own sphere of influence. Surround yourself with encouraging peers and knowledgeable mentors who support you emotionally and spiritually. Allow your trusted companions to speak life into you while you are speaking life into others; there is a lot of wisdom in the realization that you don’t have to have all the answers. When you lack wisdom, seek wise counsel, and walk in your awesomeness."

James Stith

M.A. Science Education Biology (5–12)(2016)
Newcastle, Wyoming

James Stith is passionate about creating opportunities for students to experience science in different ways, especially through hands-on learning. To do this, he developed an outdoor summer education program that teaches ecology and geology in a place-based setting. He and his school’s close-knit science department have also established and mentored smaller groups throughout the school year to allow students to explore subjects such as photography, caving, and radio.

James has presented at state, regional, and national conferences for mathematics and science education. He has even worked with the Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium to launch several weather balloons and support pre-service teachers through a program called Project LIFT. After he earned his degree at WGU, James was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Education.

He’s also been active in the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow competition, where his teams have developed solutions to real-world problems, gaining valuable experience using problem-based learning and STEM to tackle problems in their communities. They have gone on to become state finalists, state winners, and national semi-finalists.

James’s most recent ventures involve space. After 18 months of work, he and his students facilitated Wyoming's first ARISS (Amateur Radio on the International Space Station) contact. James and his students were able to speak to Commander Michael Hopkins as he flew across the horizon on the ISS. James' next goal involves putting lunar satellites in students’ hands. As a project team leader for GLEE 2023, he will work with students to build and code a lunar "chipsat" that will be launched to land on the moon in 2023.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: "This award is validation for the hard work that I, and likely all the other finalists, put in to improve their communities. I know I don’t do all the extra work to get recognized, I generally do it to fulfill a need I see. If there is some positive, lasting outcome to the efforts I put in, that is definitely reward enough on its own." 

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "I think my greatest professional accomplishment is getting the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. Getting that award has opened so many new doors and opportunities which I would have otherwise not known about or been included. The most beneficial of those is being included in the Wyoming Department of Education’s Level Up leadership program." 

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "Success looks like providing new opportunities for students to engage in and explore the STEM field. Giving students the opportunity to work with 3D design or aerospace technology, things that are outside the standard curriculum, have helped many to shape their future education and career goals. Knowing that I have helped make that kind of an impact on a student’s future means I have been successful in nurturing a love of STEM."

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "One of the biggest challenges that I run into is being a singleton (being the only teacher of a particular course) at a rural school. I have gone through a lot of work in a vacuum without a lot of outside support. I found it very important to foster relations with teachers outside my district so I can continue to be innovative and offer the best of current teaching practices in my classroom."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: "Initially, getting a master's in biology education meant the possibility to teach a dual enrollment college class. Sadly, that did not pan out, but the degree still advanced me professionally and, since I hadn't taken a chemistry class since high school, I feel a lot more confident helping my students on their chemistry homework if they come and ask me for help when their teacher is busy or absent."

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "My advice is to set aside time during the week (even if it is an hour every other night) to work on your classes. I started off waiting until the weekend to cram everything in. I started to dread my Saturday/Sunday afternoon homework sessions. Once I started spreading out my work, it was so much more manageable."

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "I think my primary inspiration is Dr. Sharla Dowding. In high school, she was my biology teacher. When I graduated college, she became my colleague and mentor. Even after she has moved on to other positions in education, she still contacts me regularly about professional development opportunities, student research symposia, or just to invite me on weekend hikes. I believe that Dr. Dowding’s tutelage has made a significant impact on my life’s trajectory in the same way I hope to do with my own students." 

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "Barring any fantastic career opportunities for either myself or my wife, we plan to keep teaching at our school for the near future. I am moving into the Wyoming Science Teachers Association president position and have been working to rejuvenate that organization. Plus, with GLEE 2023, I have a chipsat to program for a lunar mission. So the future is busy!"

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: "I don’t believe so. I am excited to be a finalist for the WGU Distinguished Graduate Award and just want to thank anyone reading this for your time!"

Glenn Koster, Sr.

B.S. Business Management (2013)
South Hutchinson, Kansas

Glenn Koster, Sr. has dedicated his life to helping others. From his walks across the country to his leadership in community churches, Glenn has always used his influence to help those in need. Glenn earned his bachelor’s degree in business management from WGU to improve effectiveness and make a difference. Koster has raised more than $10,000 for Central Kansas Children organizations, receiving media attention for his cross-country adventures, the longest one being from Florida to Washington. Glenn is also a published author. His book is titled Life is a Long Story Short: Lessons From Living through Abuse, Abandonment, and Adoption.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: "This is a hard one to explain. For starters, this award means that my education was worthwhile. Secondly, it gives me credibility, which is useful for what I seek to do going forward."

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "Walking across the United States from South Miami Beach to Westport, Washington, by way of Texas and North Dakota – 4,310 miles – to raise awareness for foster care and adoption."

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "Success for me is serving God with all that I have and all that I am and hearing at the end of the road, 'Well done, good and faithful servant.' But success is also helping others to achieve their dreams and helping others to come to know the Lord."

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "I have overcome abuse, abandonment, foster care (twice), adoption (twice), neglect, alcoholism (sober since 3-13-1989), and recovery."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: "Getting my degree from WGU meant the world to me. I earned my degree 39 years and 11 months to the day from when I stepped foot on the campus of Texas Lutheran College in Seguin, Texas. In those nearly 40 years, I attended six different colleges/universities (Texas Lutheran, Calvin, University of Houston, the University of Phoenix, Grand Canyon University, and WGU). Along the way, I also attended a technical trade school (Key V Institute) and changed degree programs/majors five times. Getting my degree was the culmination of hard work, determination, and many long nights! But earning it from WGU had special significance as I was living and working in Colorado in the mid-1990s when my boss was involved in some of the early stages of getting WGU off the ground. Way back then he recommended that I pursue an online degree through WGU because of the flexibility and credibility. It took me more than a decade (and two bad online experiences) to make the transition and complete my degree.

But earning my degree had far greater implications beyond just my education. It was enough of an incentive for my son to return to school and get his degree (and, yes, he is a Night Owl). His wife is also a Night Owl graduate. I am also the first in my birth family to get my degree – and it was incentive for two other birth siblings to pursue their degrees."

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "First, never give up! The year that I graduated, I was working full-time as a data analyst for Eaton Corporation, working part-time (20-25 hours per week) as a hardware associate at Walmart, serving as the sole reporter for the Harvey County Independent for western Harvey County, and dating the lady who would become my wife – and I was attending WGU. 

Secondly, find a mentor outside of WGU who can also help keep you focused.  Be sure to check in regularly with that mentor – letting them in on your successes and your struggles.

Finally, stay focused. Despite all that I was doing, when it came time for my schoolwork, everything else was put away and no interruptions were allowed. No phone. No music in the background. No television to keep me company. No interruptions!"

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "I have had many, notably my adopted father, George Koster (now deceased).  However, my greatest inspiration is my wife, Charlcie Koster.  She has been there for me in my journey through WGU, my walks (yes, plural), and in forming my future plans."

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "I am 66 years old, but I still feel as if I have an unbelievable future ahead of me. For one, since completing my WGU degree, I also completed my studies to become an ordained pastor in the Church of God (Anderson) – also through an online study program. I am employed as an Associate Pastor of Urban Ministries and Evangelism. I see my future as making a difference in the lives of the underprivileged in our city (Hutchinson, KS) and in our nation. I also see opportunities to help our church grow and for people to learn more about the love of God. But that’s just the beginning. I walked across the nation in 2018-19 (from South Miami Beach to Westport, Washington, by way of Texas and North Dakota), a mere 4,310 miles to raise awareness of foster care and adoption. I am now in the process of walking from county to county (to all 105 Kansas counties) to raise local awareness. Ultimately, I would like to make a difference in the lives and futures of kids in foster care. I am also a published author, with my first book published in 2016. I have two more that are slated for completion this summer. I have 13 more in some state of development. I also plan to expand my 'Beacon Ministries' ministry, which serves churches without pastors, into more of a full-time role." 

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: "Just two words: thank you!"

John Janek

B.S. in Information Technology (2009)
M.S. Management and Leadership (2017)
Stone Ridge, Virginia

Leading organizations into modern digital work through innovation, technology, and process improvement, John Janek has been a catalyst for critically impressive change in academia, government, and the private sector. John is currently the chief technologist at Dev Technology Group, Inc., where he leads technical leaders in deploying effective, award-winning solutions to improve government service delivery and value. Prior to that, he served a 15-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service working for the Department of State on assignments domestically and abroad in a variety of critical roles. His diversity of experience, which also includes working at start-ups and in academia, provide him with a unique perspective that helps organizations stay competitive, innovative, and forward-looking. John is a two-time WGU graduate, with a B.S. in Information Technology and an M.S. in Management and Leadership. He is passionate about modern value delivery and organizational design, agile practice, and technology.

His career success comes from leveraging technology as a tool to advance an organization’s mission through its people. He advocates for, writes about, and builds diverse, multidisciplinary teams with a focus on curiosity, learning, and action to produce better results for our government and the people it serves.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: "This award means a lot: that it is possible to be a leader, to deliver more for teams and those you serve, to achieve more for your family, your community, and yourself without following traditional paths. It’s a recognition that there is a new model for a new world." 

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "That’s hard to say specifically. I’ve helped with agency strategic reviews, proposed operating models that have fundamentally changed how the government thinks about data, and started the ball rolling on things that impact tens of thousands of people. More important to me, though, have been the individuals I’ve coached and taught over the years – helping them learn new technology, get that next job, earn that next assignment. I would have to say those individual moments are what define my most profound professional accomplishments." 

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "Each day I make it a goal to learn something new – big or small – and put it to use. When it happens often enough, I adopt it to practice and then pass it on to others. That’s success for me."

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "I was very sick in High School due to an acute undiagnosed infection. It was eventually treated, but not before the disease completely derailed my ability to follow any normal path. Since then, I learned that challenges are opportunities to better ourselves and those we work with. The best challenges, though, are those that give us the opportunity to learn and do more. I always get excited for them."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: "My first degree from Western Governors University was exactly what I needed at the time to prove that I valued education and had the persistence and depth of knowledge necessary to meet all the requirements of a traditional four-year degree. My second degree helped me understand and grow in ways that I knew I wanted and needed but had no idea how or where to start. That’s what makes WGU so special: you are recognized for all you bring and challenged to constantly learn and grow." 

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "I’ll say that if you’re at WGU, you know you have value, you have knowledge, and you know that you also need to grow for your family, your community, and for you. That balance between the confidence of where and who you are and seeking the new and unknown in a meaningful way will always be the approach that makes you different from anyone else: a true Night Owl."

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "I am inspired by a lot of people; I don’t think I can name any one specifically. And it is true that everyone you meet has an inspiring story and can inspire you."

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "We’re right on the edge of some big changes in how technology impacts us, helps us, and can move us forward. I’m an optimist and I really do think that all those stories about flying cars, space stations, and far-flung colonies weren’t wrong, they were just decades behind. It’s bright, so long as we work towards common goals, take care of each other and our planet, and look to what’s next."

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: "Every day we get up is another day to listen, to be heard, to do something right for another or do something better for our families, our communities, and ourselves. I can definitively say that I would not be where I am, doing the work I’m doing, without Western Governors University. It has been an essential part of my story, and I will always be grateful for the experience."

David Ekpezu

B.S. Business Management (2021)
El Paso, Texas

David Ekpezu moved to the United States from a remote village in Cross River State, Nigeria. He is the youngest in a family of eight children and was the first American school graduate in his family and tribe. His motivation once arriving in the United States was to earn a degree so he could help as many people in his community as possible. To date, he has sponsored six children to go to primary school and has officially opened a borehole to provide fresh water to his tribe. His next project will be to build a school for kids aged 4–12 years.

Q: What does this award mean to you? 

A: "The Distinguished Graduate Award suggests that I am accomplishing the goals I have set forth for my life. I am on track to becoming a successful business owner and giving back to others in my community."

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment? 

A: "My greatest professional accomplishment is establishing a business in Nigeria that has created jobs and opportunities for the locals in my hometown." 

 

Q: What does success look like to you? 

A: "Success to me looks like constant personal, financial, and educational growth. Success means building up the people around me and seeing others experience success."

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today? 

A: "The challenges I have overcome to get here are many. I overcame homesickness from being in another country than my family. I overcame depression from the death of my sister. I overcame the fear of failing. I also overcame several trials to be where I am today."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you?  

A: "Earning my degree from WGU means everything to me. I was able to earn my degree while I worked to provide for my family. Having my degree from WGU allows me to continue my education and use the education I have right now to make a difference in my life."

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls? 

A: "The advice I would give to my fellow Night Owls would be to never give up. I experienced some tremendous challenges throughout my educational journey with WGU. I am glad I didn’t give up, and I was able to accomplish my bachelor's degree." 

 

Q: Who is your inspiration? 

A: "My inspiration is my sister Agnes. My sister Agnes and I have spent countless hours dreaming and planning the businesses we would create together. Unfortunately, Agnes lost the fight to cancer while I was in school at WGU. Although we can not accomplish all the dreams we dreamt of, she continues to inspire me every day to keep pushing forward to make the world a brighter place. Another strong inspiration is my dear wife, April. She is the actual definition of a great woman. She stood beside me in all my trials and successes, and I would not be who I am today without her." 

 

Q: What does the future look like for you? 

A: "My future is bright. I look forward to earning my masters degree from WGU and continuing to build businesses that provide opportunities to many."

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: "I wanted to use this opportunity to thank Western Governors University and all the instructors that helped me succeed. I also want to thank my school mentor, Ann, for her support and drive. Western Governors University is truly the best. The university is family. They helped me a lot, and I am indeed grateful."

Jayme Benabides

M.Ed. Learning and Technology (2020)
Pueblo, Colorado

Special education teacher, Jayme Benabides, saw a need for at-risk kids in her impoverished community of Pueblo, Colorado. With a background in education technology, she created and runs a successful photography program for youth struggling with anxiety and depression. The program has been instrumental in helping provide support and an avenue to those facing mental health challenges.

Jayme's creativity has received raved reviews and comes at a time when more support is needed following the pandemic. The course has led the students to naturally engage in community service as they now focus on environmental preservation initiatives.

Q: What does this award mean to you? 

A: "This award is exciting to have been nominated for! It means that I have touched someone personally enough for them to believe I am deserving of this award and that makes me feel as though I am truly making a difference in my community."

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment? 

A: "I would have to say that my greatest professional accomplishment is helping students through the pandemic with their mental health and helping them find ways to connect to life all around them."

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "Success to me is the celebration of a job well done. Sometimes it is the quiet voice at the end of a tough day whispering I will try again tomorrow. Success through a series of failures is particularly near and dear to my heart."

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today? 

A: "I have overcome many challenges to get here today including coming from a disadvantaged home, teen pregnancy, owning a business while working, attending college, and raising children among other personal struggles. I am resilient and strive to show my children what it looks like to overcome your circumstances."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you?  

A: "Earning my degree from WGU has helped me to achieve my final degree on my time, in my way. This might mean early mornings or late nights, on the beach during a family vacation or during my lunch or plan time. I feel proud of this accomplishment, and I earned it."

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls? 

A: "The best advice I can give my fellow night owls is to never stop investing in yourself or your education. Never quit, even when times get tough- dig in and climb. Once you make it to the top of the mountain the view is spectacular. Don’t give up, you are almost there!"

 

Q: Who is your inspiration? 

A: "My children and husband are my inspiration to do more, be better, and continue growing and learning. I aspire to inspire before I expire. Also, my life quote is that a rising tide raises all boats. They are who I am doing this for."

 

Q: What does the future look like for you? 

A: "The future for me looks like I will continue teaching, running my business, and finding a unique way to use my technology degree. I am hoping that my husband will eventually become a night owl!"

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share? 

A: "Thank you for considering me for this award. I would also like to thank my nominator. The quality of education is fantastic and yet attainable even on my own. I usually do not learn well in an online setting, but this program made it easy because it was well laid out and the instructors always answered questions in a timely and affective manner. I am thankful for this program and refer many of my colleagues and family to WGU! Thank you again!"

Daniel Creed

B.S. Cybersecurity and Information Assurance (2018)
MBA Information Technology (2020)
Plainfield, Illinois 

Two-time WGU graduate Daniel Creed continues to excel in the cybersecurity field. He is currently building, supporting, and maturing the Infrastructure Security Program across the enterprise for Meta. His past positions include chief information security officer for Paradigm, global director of information security for TransUnion, and hybrid security leader at Wells Fargo.

Daniel also volunteers in his local community, teaching robotics to high school students as part of the US FIRST Robotics program.

Q: What does this award mean to you? 

A: Being recognized by WGU means a lot to me, as it acknowledges the importance we share for continuing education. I hope it will also allow me to inspire future students and alumni to continue learning and continue to reach for your goals!" 

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "Working at Meta. The opportunity to help build the metaverse, and to secure platforms that are used by more than 2 billion people across the planet is an amazing opportunity!"

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "Success looks like enjoying what you do, enjoying continually learning more about what your passionate about, and getting to make the world a better place."

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "Life! When my son was 14, he was diagnosed with leukemia, right as I began my MBA program. Everyone of us has challenges and our own reality though, compared to others, my challenges are small.  So, challenge is always a matter of perspective."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: "1.) It gets my dad to stop nagging me about finishing school! I lost my Dad last year (2021), but having him around to see me get both my bachelor's degree and masters was huge. 

2.) It proves to me a certain level of competence in my field, and it encourages me to continue the lifelong journey of continuous learning."

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "YOU CAN DO IT. Learning is important, you need to make sure you prioritize some time to learn even just a few things a day. Life will always have challenges, your not going to learn everything in a day, but everyone can learn at least one thing a day!"

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "My Dad. Built his company from the ground up, super smart, always learning, always creating!"

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "The future for me is full of dreams and hopes, but I live my life looking forward one day at a time. We live in uncertain times with lots of division among us. That being said, my future, I hope, includes bringing the next generation of cybersecurity professionals together and helping make the world a better place."

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: "Anything is possible if you want it bad enough, have the patience to work at it as long as it takes, and to continue to create, learn, and iterate until you find the right combination to get what you want!"

Nikki Malcom

B.S. Sales Management (2017)
Auburn, Washington

With no formal education, Nikki Malcom entered the aerospace industry as a filing assistant for a materials company. She is now excelling as the CEO and executive director of the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance (PNAA), a trade organization whose mission is to support the global competitiveness of the PNW Aerospace Industry. She is passionate about helping inspire young people to join the aerospace industry, and she volunteers on multiple education and workforce advisory boards, as well as STEM program development.

Prior to becoming the CEO, Nikki was the first woman and youngest person to have served as chair of the board of directors for PNAA. She has now worked in the aerospace industry for more than 22 years and reports that earning her bachelor’s degree from WGU was one of the greatest accomplishments of her life. In addition, Nikki founded a manufacturing sales and consulting organization that addressed supply chain and manufacturing needs.

She was named in the top 100 people to follow on LinkedIn by Pineapple Empire and was recently awarded the 32nd Aerotime Aviation Achievement Award for her dedication to and support of the aerospace and defense sector, for promoting aviation careers and scholarships, advocating for inclusion, and inspiring the next generation through STEM projects.

Q: What does this award mean to you? 

A: "I am incredibly honored to accept this nomination. As someone who struggled in my early years as a student, being recognized as a distinguished graduate is something I couldn’t have dreamed of and is proof that with hard work and a great support system you can accomplish anything."

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment? 

A: "Becoming CEO & Executive Director of the Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance. I know that the impact that I’ll be able to make on the entire PNW Aerospace industry is an privilege that I don’t take lightly."

 

Q: What does success look like to you? 

A: "Success is making an impact. Working to overcome challenges and improve the industry for the better."

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today? 

A: "I’ve overcome a lack of formal education at a young age, overcoming socio-economic challenges, surviving domestic violence, and entering a male-dominated workforce at a very young age."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you?  

A: "I remember distinctly walking to get my degree on the day of graduation.  Since I had not attended a high school graduation, this was my first ceremony like that. The amount of pride that I felt in that moment was immeasurable. It helped solidify for me that I can accomplish anything."

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls? 

A: "Reach out for help early and often. Don’t struggle if you don’t need to. As Glennon Doyle says 'It turns out there's no prize for being she who suffers secretly and in silence, unless you consider loneliness a reward'."

 

Q: Who is your inspiration? 

A: "My inspiration is my family and friends. It’s through the support and constant encouragement, feedback, and sometimes late study sessions that I am where I am today."

 

Q: What does the future look like for you? 

A: "As noted on my graduation cap – But wait…there’s more."

Rob Berg

M.S. Management and Leadership (2015)
St. Augustine, Florida 

Rob Berg is a principal and director at Perr&Knight, a consulting firm headquartered in Santa Monica, California. Having founded the firm’s operations and technology consulting practice in 2006, Rob has led the practice past eight figures in revenue while employing more than 70 professionals in the insurance technology field.

Since graduating from WGU with his M.S. in Management and Leadership in 2015, he has advised many of the nation’s leading insurance companies and their executive teams by identifying and documenting critical functions of core insurance processing systems, planning and executing major operational improvements, and providing analysis in support of major capital investment decisions. He has also become an ICF Associate Certified Coach, working with accomplished senior executives who wish to further advance their careers. Recently, Rob published a book about his experiences entitled The Courageous Consultant: Seven Keys to Becoming an Exceptional Advisor.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: “It is an honor and a privilege to be recognized as a distinguished graduate by an educational institution as well regarded as WGU. My personal philosophy is to dare to be different, to challenge the status quo, and to challenge old ways of thinking to elevate ourselves and those with whom we interact each day. Having been part of the fabric of one of the most innovative higher education programs ever offered – and being recognized for having excelled at it – means everything to me.”

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: “Building a thriving consulting practice that has served hundreds of clients with a team of roughly 80 staff and helping lead the practice through some very challenging times while maintaining growth and profitability have been especially gratifying. Having written and published a book about my experiences as a consultant that has been well received by peers and critics alike was icing on the cake. Both accomplishments are testament to the value of continuing formal education, as I have done well into my fifties.”

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: “For me, success is a general sense of satisfaction brought about by being positively engaged in the work that I do, while enjoying the camaraderie one can only feel by accomplishing things together – whether that happens in a business, a marriage, or a community. Success is not being fixated on wanting more, rather enjoying what you have. Success looks an awful lot like happiness.”

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: “My path to my current station in life involved hard work, significant risks, and major financial struggles. Determined to carve out a career path on my own terms, early on I regularly spent any available funds on books and education, sometimes sacrificing meals to do so! Committing to educating myself gave me the confidence I needed to power through even the most trying times.”

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you?

A: “Earning my master’s degree from WGU was an affirmation that I possessed the classical, foundational knowledge one requires to achieve excellent outcomes for themselves in the business world. The grounding in core management and leadership concepts that I gained helped me to refine my approach to envisioning, organizing, and leading a business – and confidently advise others to do the same.”

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: “Persevere! Pursuing higher education can be quite challenging – especially when you’re juggling home and work life and those inevitable obstacles that pop up. It’s those who persist that succeed, so if you’re ever feeling overwhelmed by the whole process, take a step back, take a deep breath, and come back strong to tackle your work with all vigor. It will all be worth it when you earn that degree.”

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: “Individuals who carved out a unique position for themselves, put a stake in the ground, and altered the world in the process inspire me. Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, and more recently, Steve Jobs come to mind. Each one of them utterly changed the way we perceive or experience something and elevated the human condition in the process.”

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: “As my career enters a new phase and I can look back with satisfaction on my accomplishments, my work has turned to helping others become successful in the business world. As a direct result of my time at WGU, I became intensely interested in the field of executive coaching and have since earned two certifications and coach several individuals who are working toward major business and life goals. My plans include an expansion of those coaching activities such that my days are filled with coaching clients who wish to excel in their lives and their careers. (It’s notable that enrolling in a coaching class, coaching twenty-five clients, and earning my coaching certification were the three goals stated in my master’s capstone project!)”

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: “You simply can’t know exactly what benefits await after achieving a WGU degree. In addition to the knowledge, you’ll gain and the opportunities for career advancement you’ll enjoy, you will find yourself generally better prepared to tackle anything life throws at you. The confidence you build by working through your course materials, refining your work products, and gaining the self-knowledge that you can, step by step, achieve a major educational milestone will prove invaluable in anything you choose to do.”

Ashlei Ashmore

B.S. Business Healthcare Management (2018)
Oktaha, Oklahoma

Ashlei Ashmore earned her bachelor's degree in healthcare management at WGU in 2018. Shortly after graduating, she was hired as the third employee of Oklahoma State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation. Even in the middle of a pandemic, Ashlei’s contributions to and oversight of the construction of the college’s medical facility contributed to the success of its opening. OSUCOM-CN is the first Native American tribally affiliated medical school in the nation and is now successfully matriculating students thanks to Ashlei and her team. Ashlei has also been influential in building partnerships for the school by assisting with the production and filming of a movie. She has even coordinated with her tribe, the Cherokee Nation, to bring cultural activities to students on campus. Ashlei’s work will have a lasting impact on the health and education of many Native Americans and underserved rural citizens statewide.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: "It is an honor to get to represent WGU as a distinguished graduate. I am grateful that WGU gave me the ability to reach my goals while working full time and being an active mom. It means a great deal that the work I am so passionate about resonates with others."

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "I was instrumental in the opening of the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine at the Cherokee Nation. This is the nation’s first tribally affiliated medical school. It is in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and opened in August 2020 with an entering class of 54 first year medical students, who will be future doctors addressing the physician shortage in my home state."

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "Success is when you can create a work/life balance that fulfills you, giving you the ability to do more and be more to others."

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "The last two years have brought us all new challenges to overcome with the National Pandemic. This created unforeseen barriers to the completion of our construction project with limited time and resources. I had to get creative with resources and be willing to roll up my sleeves and do the manual labor when necessary to meet deadlines, creating an environment where we all worked towards a common goal."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: "I wanted to be an involved mom while pursuing my degree. WGU allowed me to do this with the flexibility of working at my own pace and around that schedule. Getting my degree from WGU meant I didn’t have to miss all the little moments that become the big moments, as my children grow up."

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "Never ever give up on yourself because you are enough! Celebrate the small successes along the way, because they will get you through to the big ones."

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "My children are my inspiration. I want to make sure they are aware of the opportunities that are out there and that they know you can accomplish anything you put your mind to with hard work and sacrifice."

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "I am currently enrolled in healthcare administration graduate school at Oklahoma State University, where I am employed. I look forward to a long career with the Oklahoma State University Cowboy Family!"

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: "Chase your dreams, you are smarter and more capable than you give yourself credit for. We are all on the same struggle bus, don’t let anyone have your seat. Keep grinding!"

Rodney Clause

B.A. Mathematics (2006)
M.A. Mathematics Education (2009)
M.S. Education Leadership (2010)

M.Ed. Learning and Technology (2011)
Fort Apache, Arizona

After Rodney Clause earned three education degrees from WGU, he accepted a position on the White Mountain Apache Reservation, teaching math under the federal "Turnaround" program. He earned his third master’s degree, a Master of Education in Learning and Technology, while working there. For the last seven years, Rodney has worked to change perceptions of the behavioral health and educational community through his work on STEM projects with the Helping EveryDay Youth (HEDY) program. In 2016, he introduced robotics to his students, who qualified for the 2018 World Championships in Nashville. His primary coach received the Inspiration All Star Award from the REC Foundation in 2019. Last May, 11 of the teams Rodney mentored from the White Mountain Apache Tribe competed at the REC World Championship in Dallas.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: "This award has only been possible from the education I am obtaining and the opportunity to serve my community to provide our youth a chance to succeed. This award will be shared with them giving us more resources to expand our program."

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "Experiencing and seeing successes from youth who may never had found success without robotics. When a former student sees you, calls out for you and gives you a huge hug makes any past struggle meaningless." 

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "Seeing a product which I contributed to bringing life to others."

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "When we started using STEM project based learning into the local behavioral health company, an understanding how it could help youth was unknown by most of the company administration. We dumpster dove for cardboard, 2 liter bottles and were given cull materials from Home Depot for project materials. It took another five years for the school districts we work in to see the value as well."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: "Not only did WGU provide the opportunity for me to earn the education I never finished, their competency program provided quality knowledge which opened doors which had been locked. I am forever grateful."

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "The time you devote will be repaid many times over. Set a schedule you can handle. Know other time you had form other things may not be there; however, you will reach things which will help you regain time which will create new opportunities. If you fall, get back up knowing your quest can be reached. Take breaks when you know you need them; but always get back working to reach your goals."

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "When our coach received his award, I spoke with Tim Crispin who has coached a team in Maryland since this robotics program started. He shared several stories how robotics has saved lives. He opened a different perspective I didn’t recognize before."

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "Bigger than I ever imagined. The school districts are so supportive. Our contacts with REC and Google are growing. Robotics is expanding to every school on the reservation. Every student will have a chance from 2nd grade through high school to learn from STEM and robotics skills needed to survive in the modern world of technology: Not only tech skills but problem solving, teamwork, communication patience, confidence, and leadership."

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: "I’ve heard it said as you climb the ladder of success, do not forget to turnaround and give a hand to someone behind you. Do it!"

Juan Longoria

B.S. Business Management (2016)
MBA (2020)
M.S. Management and Leadership (2021)
Harlingen, Texas

After Juan Longoria earned his bachelor's in business management, then two master’s degrees from WGU, he was promoted to the director of global care operations position at T-Mobile. Juan is passionate about diversity and inclusion and serves as the co-chair for the Magenta LatinX Network, an employee resource group serving Hispanic and LatinX employees. In addition, Juan continues to give back to his community through a nonprofit that he started called REVJLO. Over the last several years, the nonprofit has provided more than $100K in scholarships to graduates from Juan’s hometown high school in San Benito, Texas, and he continues to raise funds to assist future students.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: “This award means a great deal to me. To be honored by the school I attended in this manner affirms that the contributions I am making make a difference to my community. I carry a great deal of pride in being a strong representation of my family, my employer, and the schools of which I have attended. It is great to have that pride reciprocated.”

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: “My greatest accomplishment has been raising two beautiful children filled with love and kindness in their hearts while living in a world that isn’t always a reflection of that. More than anything, I want to be a great role model for my kids and I feel that I’m succeeding so far.”

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: “Success looks like a smile on your face and a conscience at peace. There is no amount of money worth being miserable at work or in your life. If you can wake up on a daily basis and be excited about the day ahead, you’ve made it!”

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: “Growing up as a migrant worker, we started school late and left early. We constantly had to do more with less time, all while staying competitive with our grades. My parents couldn’t afford to send my sibling or I to college, so we had to work while attending school to not get into a trap of student loans. Even then, working full time in a role that required international travel did not make school any easier. However, my wife and our future goals helped me across the finish line.”

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: “It meant I could look my mom in the face and tell her I had delivered on my promise to her. My entire life, the only thing she asked of me was that I received my college degree because neither she nor my father ever could. That meant the entire world to me.”

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: “Push through! The beauty of WGU is that it is your degree on your terms. Mentors and instructors are there to provide support and ensure we stay on track, but this is your degree plan and make sure you make it work for you.”

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: “My beautiful wife. She has sacrificed so much for our little family and for my career. She’s put her own career on hold to ensure our children have the best chances at life and to allow me to pursue my career aspirations. Her strength is an example of what is possible when you are committed to a goal and a plan. That pushes me every day.”

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: “I want to keep on giving back. Whether it is developing future leaders at my workplace, giving high school students a financial head starts to college, or helping those that are underrepresented find their voice and deserved places, I want to use my platform to make it easier for people to reach theirs.”

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: “Only that I am honored to be thought of as a distinguished alumnus. This school has given me so many opportunities to do more for myself, my family, and my community. From the bottom of my heart. Thank you.”

Sean James McCauley

M.S. Education Leadership (2016)
Morganville, New Jersey

After years of teaching, Sean McCauley joined the U.S. Air Force as a commissioned officer, working for the Department of Defense as an intelligence analyst before eventually becoming second-in-command. After his service, he returned to New Jersey where he became a captain with the New Jersey Air National Guard. He returned to civilian life, where he organized New Jersey's statewide COVID-19 vaccine initiative in Atlantic City. He is passionate about making meaningful strides to improve citizens' lives through common-sense reform, and he is currently running for Board of Education in Marlboro, New Jersey.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: "It is always nice to be recognized for the hard work and dedication one puts in. Though I am an educator during the day, I seek opportunities to help my community, state, and country. This award highlights the work I have done and the sacrifices my family and friends have made throughout the years. This is not just an honor for me but them as well. I think my children must see that sacrifice does not go unnoticed and unappreciated in today's world and that working hard holds value."

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "Within education, my most significant professional accomplishment was working closely with a student on their research project for the National History Day (NHD) competition. As we progressed through the regional and state competitions, researching in libraries such as Princeton and Rutgers, I saw that students grow and become more confident with the material gave me great pride as an educator and mentor. Her dedication led to our district's first entrance to the NHD National Competition in Maryland and Washington D.C. We did not win, but it didn't matter the experience of traveling to different universities and researching the subject. Networking with other students was a great experience, and I saw her move on to continue NHD competition throughout her time in the district. Within the military, my successful tour in Afghanistan would be my most significant professional accomplishment, where I was placed into a leadership role two months after being deployed. During my time, I had 118 combat flights, oversaw 4,000 combat sorties, eliminated 850 enemy combatants, and captured 400 enemies, finally leading to the capture of two terrorist leaders."

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "Success is clear, concise, and cooperative teamwork where all involved understand their objective and all work towards a common goal."

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "I have worked hard through many challenges in my life. I lost my mother when I was ten years old, and my father worked the night shift leaving me to care for my younger sister. This significantly impacted my education, leading me to be retained in 6th grade. By the time I entered high school, it had become clear that I was drastically behind in reading comprehension. I had to make a conscious effort to improve this weakness on my own time, following school, volleyball, and work. Once in college, I worked full-time and had an overload class schedule, 21 credits instead of 18, six of the eight semesters. I finished what was supposed to be a five and half year program in four years. I was prepared to join the Air Force out of college, but I lost my father, and once again, I had to focus on caring for my sister, who was still in school. I entered the workforce, where I began teaching and providing a stable home life for my sister and me. After four years, I took it upon myself to enter the WGU program, where I completed the two-year Educational Leadership program in one year. Though I had finished, my sister also finished school, providing me an opportunity to join the Air Force and fulfill what I felt was a duty. After four years of active duty, I returned to the classroom while also joining the New Jersey Air National Guard, where I supported the largest deployment of national guard members since polio, having a two-year-old at home and a wife that was pregnant. My family and I have worked hard to get to this point and look to make more considerable and more impactful differences moving forward."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you?

A: "The degree from WGU offered me a renewed confidence in myself. I carry a chip on my shoulder from the sixth-grade retention. Finishing that degree years after being out of college led me to join the Air Force, to gain a second Masters in Strategic Intelligence and a third in National and International Policy. WGU was the spark for continued education and a journey to prove that I am not a struggling young man anymore."

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "Your decision to join and obtain a degree is a decision to better yourself, your family, and your future co-workers. This can be done, and like dieting and working out, it is different for everyone. Find what works for you and push through. It may be tough now, but it will feel much better once it is over."

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "My father is my inspiration. He did everything he could to make sure my sister and I had what was needed. His hard work and dedication laid the base for my drive and plans. I would not be here without his sacrifice."

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "The future is uncertain, and I am open to change and never turn down opportunities. I look to support the NJ ANG in any ongoing operations while looking to provide my services as a leader to a district willing to give me a chance. I will offer my time to influential organizations to better the lives of others."

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: "It is an honor to be considered and to be a recipient of this award. I appreciate the time and dedication the team and university have put into making this decision. I am still seeking a way to be an impactful administrator in education, but the leadership contents of my WGU courses have been instrumental in my leadership in the military and in organizing community groups and events." 

Jennifer Powell

B.S. Nursing (2019)
MSN, Leadership and Management (2022)
Depew, New York

When Jennifer Powell worked at a hospital system in western New York, she was inundated with COVID-19 cases. Her hospital shut down all elective and outpatient services, including the ER. Jennifer, along with her colleagues, trained for specialized ICU positions to help the state manage the pandemic. She was the first night-shift nurse who volunteered to learn CRRT and dialysis, which meant that she would care for the sickest patients, a role she willingly took on because of her community’s need. Jennifer and colleagues worked 12-hour shifts in full personal protective equipment for more than a year. She knew that her team was struggling with the heavy workload, so she helped moderate a nightly virtual support group for healthcare professionals.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: “First off, I would like to thank you for being nominated and chosen as a recipient; it is truly an honor. The WGU Distinguished Graduate Award means the world to me, showing that hard work and perseverance pay off and anyone can achieve their goals with the right school and a little added support.”

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: “My greatest professional accomplishment has been using what I learned in the Master of Science in Nursing Leadership and Management degree to create a program at my organization that standardized the orientation pathway to improve new graduate nurse retention. In our current healthcare climate, nurses need greater support from leadership and clinical education on comorbidities, patient education, and self-care as they prepare to care for sicker patients than generations prior.”

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: “Success in my area of work (nursing) looks like solid teamwork, higher retention rates, improved employee engagement, and improved patient outcomes. After all, we serve our community, and they are the reason we chose this career path. Assisting our community to have a better quality of life and appropriate access to healthcare by having staff to support our hospitals is my picture of success as a nurse leader and nurse educator. Also, having staff that is engaged, and have a questioning attitude means that I have built a solid rapport and there is a level of comfort in asking questions, this speaks volumes as one educator in a 471-bed hospital. Being able to be creative in the role and quickly come up with learning plans tailored to each individual and having them succeed is ultimately how I judge success.”

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: “One challenge I overcame to get to where I am today was my self-confidence. I work for a hospital system in Buffalo, NY as an emergency room nurse. One day we walked into work and were advised by our administration that our hospital would be closing (that following morning) only to reopen as NY state’s only COVID-19 hospital. We were offered to transfer to a new hospital or stay and work as ICU nurses. I was the first to volunteer; after all, this was my community, and I chose this career to serve them. I trained at work and at home, countless hours on ventilators, medication drips, continuous renal replacement, pronation therapy, and how to manage the sickest patients I have ever had to care for in my 21-year nursing career. The ultimate challenge became clear when no visitation was allowed. Mentally, I had to be strong and confident in my skills to support our patients and their families through Facetime visits as I held the hands of many losing their battle with COVID-19 and talked their family members through what I was seeing and hearing. These actions were brutal, considering I had a family to care for at home and was in my MSN program. Overcoming these challenges made me more self-confident, a more decisive nurse leader, mother, wife, and student.” 

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: “Earning my MSN degree from WGU means everything to me. I have had a long road to this degree, and as any mother will tell you, we tend to put everyone in front of ourselves. I am no different. I started my nursing career in 2001 as an LPN. I completed my RN in 2014, my BSN in 2019, and my MSN in 2022. Ensuring I was present at home and work was essential to my work-life balance. That meant putting off my own goals a few times. But I made it through and am proud of how I managed my family and school, plus a fantastic career. Showing my children and others that arduous work and dedication really do pay off. It was not easy but having the support of some dedicated student mentors and professors made me feel like I was never alone, and for that, I am thankful and proud to be a Night Owl!”

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: Work hard, and do not hesitate to reach out to your program mentors and professors. They genuinely want you to succeed. Take time off when needed and focus upon returning. That is the benefit of our WGU education.”  

 

 Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: “My Vice-President of Operations at my organization inspires me. She displays unrivaled strength, commitment, and compassion, blazing new paths forward as a leader. She faces each day with a smile and a friendly ‘hello’ in passing. She holds a hectic position yet never hesitates to stop what she is working on to help someone in need. I have seen her on countless occasions in her business attire and heels, transporting a patient from the emergency department to their assigned unit when we were short-staffed. I have witnessed her console upset staff with grace and compassion and ask what she can do to help. Leadership like this is a true testament to her work ethic, upbringing, and her beliefs that at that moment, you are what is most important. I hope to one day inspire others as she has inspired me.”

 

 Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: “I have just accepted a new position in my department as a Corporate Clinical Nurse Educator, and I will continue to focus on the orientation and preceptorship of our new nurses. I have accepted the leadership position of Vice-Chair of the Nurse Executive Council within my organization and the Administrative Liaison of the nursing research council, guiding our nursing staff to foster new ways to conduct their work through the research process. I could not have done any of this without the knowledge I obtained in my MSN program. I am also enrolled in a local school to earn a post master’s certificate for my Nurse Practitioner and Doctor of Nursing Practice class of 2024.”

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: “Being a Night Owl at WGU has been a huge blessing. I would not have been able to complete my BSN and MSN degrees at a brick-and-mortar school while working full time to support my family. I would often be at my computer at 4:30 am before I had to leave for work or 10:30 pm before bed. The flexibility of the WGU programs allowed me to take time off (I did use a term break) and then come right back to my work, more focused than ever.

I was lucky enough to have mentors (Sylvia Zaki-Smith, BSN mentor. Gia Long and Liza Cerame, MSN mentors) who were fantastic and deserve recognition. My course instructors, Donna Austgen and Paula Pritchard deserve many accolades for their support and guidance on the rare occasion I would call with questions or need further advice on an assignment. These course instructors and mentors deserve to be honored just as the distinguished alumni, and I would find it hard to believe if any nominee did not feel the same. I will forever be grateful to these five women who, on countless occasions, inspired me to be the best version of myself I could envision. When people ask me about the benefits of going to school at WGU, these are all the reasons I give.

Thank you for choosing me as a 2022 Distinguished Graduate Award recipient. I am so flattered and could not be prouder to be a WGU alum. I hope to return to WGU as a Mentor for the BSN program in the future and be able to give back to future students.”

Kevin Collopy

Master of Health Leadership (2021)
Wilmington, North Carolina

Kevin Collopy is an accomplished prehospital and critical care transport medicine leader who has been engaged in supporting his community and advancing his profession for more than 20 years. He launched his system’s prehospital blood administration program while developing an outreach program that improved supplies of blood in the region. Since the program's inception, it has collected double the amount of blood it has administered to patients; enough to impact more than 2,000 patients and their families. Kevin also developed the country's first prehospital point of care laboratory testing program, accredited by the College of American Pathologists as a mobile laboratory. He was recognized as an EMS10 Innovator in 2014. Kevin has remained committed to helping the prehospital care profession grow and has authored more than 200 magazine articles, textbook chapters, and research papers. He has presented on prehospital care medicine more than 150 times across the United States, Taiwan, Canada, and Belize. Kevin currently chairs the Global Critical Care Transport Higher Education Council, where he led the development of the inaugural Accreditation Standards for A.S., B.S., and Graduate Critical Care Transport Education Programs.

He continues teaching paramedic programs at his local community college and is the principal investigator for six prehospital research studies.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: "Its extremely humbling to be considered for the Distinguished Graduate Award. My professional career has been focused on helping transform the prehospital care profession so that we can improve the patient experience, patient outcomes, and the environment in which our paramedics and nurses. This honor helps highlight that I’ve successfully translated what I learned throughout my education into action that is impacting healthcare professionals and their patients."

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "While it is difficult to capture the past 20+ years of my still ongoing career into a single moment, my greatest accomplishment has been the success of my former students and mentees. Several of my former students now lecture at conferences, lead their own research, and are transforming care in their own systems. Helping mold their passion for moving our profession forward and growing their candlelight into an inferno gives me incredible joy!"

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "Success can take on many forms. To me, professional success means building such strong relationships that peers seek your insight and perspective before making decisions. Successful projects improve the lives of those we serve."  

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "I was just over a year into my career, and an undergraduate, when I suddenly found myself responding to Ground Zero in New York City following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. This event, timed closely with a few other major events tested my mental health and my focus. I had to re-learn how to study, focus, and plan before I could continue in my education training."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: "I had wanted to earn a graduate degree for over a decade but needed a school that would push me to learn while also provide flexibility for my work and personal life. WGU provided me just that! I was able to apply what I was learning in each course immediately into the workplace. WGU’s MHL program helped me become a better leader, mentor, and change manager."

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "Make the most out of every class in which you are enrolled. Engage with your faculty and ask questions that allow you to dig deeper into the content. The effort you put into your courses will pay dividends for years to come."

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "My late uncle, Colonel Michael Collopy, MD. He was a veteran of two wars (Vietnam & Operation Desert Storm), an accomplished orthopedic surgeon, and selflessly devoted family man. He never missed an opportunity to help manage someone up, take time to listen, and inspire me to be better."

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "My hope is to continue working to improve prehospital medicine with evidence-based programs that improve efficiency and the patient’s experience & outcome. Right now I’m working on projects to help expand prehospital medicine education in Ukraine and establish a critical care paramedic credential in North Carolina."

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: "Find your passion and stoke the fire! Look for the positive in every project you’re working on, and always make time for those who matter most: your family!"

Jason Maestri

B.S. Software Development (2021)
Owens Cross Roads, Alabama

Jason Maestri worked in IT and engineering positions from the time he was 16 years old, though he didn’t complete his bachelor’s degree until he was 44. While raising five kids, volunteering as a scoutmaster for his local scout troop, and working full-time, Jason was promoted to chief engineer of his business unit at Lockheed Martin, shortly after starting his bachelor’s program in IT software from WGU. Since then, he was promoted to Vice President of Engineering at Performance Drone Works and is now back at Lockheed Martin as the Program Manager for a significant technology development program. Jason credits WGU for his career success.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: "Receiving this award is very impactful to me. It is recognition that I have overcome the significant challenges I’ve encountered in life and achieved the goal of obtaining a degree. Furthermore, it shows that I did so in a way that has made an impact on the people around me."

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "My greatest professional accomplishment has been not just one event or title, but the opportunities I’ve had throughout my career to bring people and teams together to accomplish great things. I am particularly proud of the fact that I’ve been able to do so across several industries, incorporating the knowledge and skills I learn in each to new roles as I grow."

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "To me, success looks like finding ways to bring teams together to solve hard problems in ways they wouldn’t succeed at individually. I feel most successful when my contributions to the team help others to see their potential and be recognized for their value."

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "I have overcome many significant challenges in order to achieve my degree and become successful in my career. I never fit the traditional mold for successful students and so education was always a struggle for me.  Overcoming significant learning disabilities, balancing an intense career with raising a family, and doing so on a single income has taken significant effort.  Without the help and support of my amazing wife and wonderful family, I could never have accomplished it."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: "Earning my degree from WGU means I was finally able to fulfil a lifelong goal of achieving my education. Furthermore, I was able to do so from an accredited university, in a field of study that was relevant to me."

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "The best advice I can give is to just keep with the program! Leverage your student mentor and your support system around you. You’ll be amazed at how quickly that persistence pays off and you’ll soon earn a degree that you may have thought was out of reach."

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "My most significant inspiration comes from my father and my wife. My father worked his entire life without obtaining a bachelor's degree. He has been a lifelong learner and is one of the smartest people I know. It has always inspired me to see him be successful and find ways to overcome his lack of a degree. I have also seen how much work and extra effort he has had to put into things because of it. I have always wanted to be like him, but I’ve also wanted to learn from his hard work and obtain my degree before completing my career.

"In addition, I find significant inspiration in my wife. She is dedicated and tireless in her work to raise a family and support her husband. I am grateful for her every day and I want to constantly be better and live up to the bar she sets. Without her, I would never have been able to accomplish any of the successes I have had in life."

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "To me, the future looks promising. I have reached the end of the individual contributor portion of my career and I am now coaching and leading others. I am very much driven by helping others see their own value. I see a bright future in inspiring coworkers and community members to see the best in themselves and to reach their potential."

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: "Stick with it. If you put your mind to it, anything is possible!"

Samantha Fowler

B.S. Health Services Coordination (2021)
Louisville, Kentucky

Since becoming a licensed practical nurse in 2016, Samantha has enjoyed volunteering her medical knowledge to community organizations. In September 2021, Samantha traveled to southern Louisiana the day following Hurricane Ida’s landfall. She teamed up with local organizations and businesses to collect medical supplies and the materials needed to begin repairing homes that had suffered damage. Samantha and a friend filled a camper and truck with supplies and made the trip with the intention of setting up clinics and passing out supplies with the United Cajun Navy.

While the supplies were distributed and the clinic was set up, Samantha found herself taking “distress calls” to check on people and provide medical assistance. Samantha and her group were called to check on residents of an assisted living facility, where she found that she was the only healthcare professional on location and that all of the staff had abandoned the residents of the community. There was no power, other than some generators; no air conditioning; and very little water and food. 

By that point, the residents had been alone for four days without medication or medical care. Samantha used the organizational and health coordination skills she obtained through WGU’s health services coordination program to create a plan, delegate tasks, and assess the residents. In addition, Samantha and her team attempted to contact the residents’ families. The work of Samantha and her team brought attention to the abandoned residents, and they were evacuated the following day. The high-stress situation was made more bearable due to the skills Samantha obtained through WGU.

Samantha currently works as a general manager (executive director) at Canopy Senior Living. She is also an active member of the Junior League of Louisville. Samantha will be graduating with a master's degree in health science in May of 2023 and is considering Doctor of Public Health programs.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: "Winning this award is a great honor for me. I started my academic career by struggling to complete assignments in middle and high school. I never would have imagined that I would be honored as a distinguished graduate from a university." 

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "My greatest professional accomplishment has been to lead my staff on a path to be amazing nurses and caregivers. I take great satisfaction in growing compassionate healthcare professionals and bettering the lives of patients." 

   

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "To me, success looks like building a career around giving back to others. I fully believe that if you love what you do, you never work a day in your life. Being happy is the goal and the marker of success in my book." 

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "I’ve overcome a challenging early life that included being a teen parent and struggling with alcohol. My life has changed so much over the years and people that know me don’t realize some of the struggles I have overcame. I know that everything I have been through has shaped me." 

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: "As someone that struggles with math, I didn’t know if I could complete the requirements for a bachelor's degree. I always felt confused and left behind in other programs. Earning a degree from WGU gave me the confidence to keep building on my dreams." 

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "Never give up. It doesn’t matter if you complete a new class every day and finish quickly or take the full amount of time to graduate. Our destination is the same regardless of our route." 

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "My inspiration is my late sister, Brooke. Brooke passed away due to domestic violence in 2012 at the age of 16. I decided at that time that no matter how big and scary my dreams where, I would reach them. I would take every opportunity to live a full life for myself and also for her." 

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "My future looks like a life devoted to community service and the fight for health equity and equality."

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: "In addition to my WGU degree, the M.S. that I am currently finishing, and my future DrPH goal; I also have a Licensed Practical Nurse degree from 2016. I am a member of the Junior League of Louisville as well."  

Kimberly Sharp

B.S. Nursing (2021)
Indianapolis, Indiana

Kimberly Sharp founded a public education prevention program in Indianapolis in order to help address her county’s opioid crisis. Kimberly taught a 90-minute workshop on the use of opioids, the role of prescription drugs in the crisis, Naloxone as the reversal agent for an opioid overdose, and how to administer it. She provided free Naloxone kits to participants thanks to funding from a grant she secured. From 2015 to 2019, she distributed nearly 1,000 doses of Naloxone and trained more than 500 people on life-saving measures. When the pandemic shut down the operation, she adapted and moved her program online, later resuming it in-person.  

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: "It is such an honor to receive this award. The recognition for the work I do to impact the opioid crisis and overdose deaths in my community is my passion. An award for doing the work of my heart is the cherry on top."

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "I feel that every day I have worked as a nurse has been a great accomplishment. When people are seeking care it’s likely not one of their best days so being there for them with positivity, knowledge, and compassion to make their experience go a little better is a great achievement every day."

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "Success in my career means advocating for the vulnerable. At the end of the day if I have helped make life better or a little less complicated for someone then I have been successful."

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "I have been very blessed and have not had many challenges in getting where I am today. I have had several things that could be defined as obstacles, but they always turned into an opportunity for me. For example, after 28 years of service in one healthcare organization my position was a part of a reduction in workforce initiative. Although I was devasted at first, I knew that there was different work I was supposed to be doing. In a short time, my current position opened with a different healthcare organization. I have had more opportunities to help people, grow professionally and reap greater financial benefits than ever before."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: "Earning my degree from WGU made it possible for me to move into the graduate program for healthcare leadership. This will allow me to further my goal of moving into healthcare consulting." 

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "My advice to other students is to stay steady with the courses. Establish a cadence that works for you and your life and keep marching to it. Don’t procrastinate!"

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "I have several people that have influenced my life and been an inspiration to me. I have worked with many great nurses over the years who taught me the skill of being a good nurse. I have had several leaders who modeled servant leadership which shaped me as a leader, but my lasting inspiration has always been Florence Nightingale. She was a woman ahead of her time. She is the foundation of nursing and the health of people. This has been most evident to me in the last few years of COVID-19 with the simple technique of washing our hands to prevent the spread of infection."

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "Although I am on the downhill side of my career, it is still very bright. I would like to continue to do my overdose prevention work, complete my master’s degree and move into healthcare consulting. I have 37 years of knowledge and experience that I would love to share with others."

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: "Learning never ends and it’s never too late! I’m 58 years old, still participating in formal academic education and being curious about the world around me every day." 

Aspen De La Cruz

B.S. Information Technology (2019)
M.S. Information Technology Management (2021)
Stafford, Virginia

Aspen De La Cruz served in the U.S. Army for 15 years as an IT specialist but wanted to improve her skills through education. She earned her bachelor's degree in information technology in 2019, while deployed in Iraq, and her master's in IT management in 2021, both from WGU. She credits WGU for her project management knowledge and ability to upgrade infrastructure that indirectly affects critical missions within the U.S. Military. Aspen also keeps busy as a mother of three and volunteers as a recreational soccer coach.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: "Obtaining my degree while being a mother and serving in the Armed Forces has made me push myself mentally and physically more than ever. This award validates that all of the hard work and late nights were completely worth it and allows me to show my kids and coworkers that I work hard for them and myself."

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "Obtaining my master's degree has been one of my most significant professional accomplishments. I proved that I could go higher than I had ever thought possible with this degree."

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

A: "Success is knowing that you did all you could and gave it your all to reach your desired end state; you did not hold back or leave anything on the table. It is being happy with your end state and knowing that your priorities were met by accomplishing your goals."

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "I started my higher education path as an active duty member in the U.S. Army. It took a while to learn how to balance my education and work-life. However, I eventually achieved my associate's degree. I thought those moments in life were as hard as it gets until I decided to support my husband in getting his bachelor's degree by telling him that I would work to get mine. Mere weeks after having my second child, I started down the path to obtaining my bachelor's degree. It was one of the scariest decisions I have made, and I regretted it many times. However, I proved that I could dedicate whatever time to my education and get through it. From that first moment, obstacles came between me and my goals for higher education. I raised a newborn, deployed to Iraq, and went to my senior leadership course throughout my degree plan. I had to learn to balance my bachelor's degree and almost every aspect of my already complicated life. I was exhausted towards the end of my bachelor's degree. However, I got through it and vowed not to do my master's degree for years. I did not know that only a year and some change later, I would be starting my master's degree and pushing myself to complete it within a single semester period. Obtaining my master’s degree pushed me to my limits, and I couldn’t have completed it without the support of my husband and my mentors. They all made me continue and strive for my high bar of success."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: "Earning my degree from WGU means that I pushed myself to take the steps that less than 1% of my peers chose to take. It sets me apart and proves that I am resilient and strive for nothing less than greatness."

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "Take it one class at a time, dedicate a few hours a night to learning what you need, and apply your education to your real-life job; it will make the training path more manageable if you can relate to it."

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "COL (Ret) Collins has always been an inspiration for me throughout my career. From the first day I met her, she dominated the room with wit, confidence, and competence. She pushed me to better myself often, and I have always strived to be like her and be respected in my military career."

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "I will retire from the military in approx. 2028, in those six years, I want to build an Interior Design business that focuses on 3D Renders and Remodeling Projects as the Project Manager for and lead designer for my company. After I retire, I plan to work in my business full time and raise my kids."

 

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

A: "WGU has impacted my life and provided me with the control I needed to complete many other accomplishments in a relatively short amount of time. I am grateful to WGU and the programs it offers and will continue to recommend its program to all of my I.T. buddies."

Melissa Knutson

B.S. Nursing (2021)
Readstown, Wisconsin

Melissa Knutson is passionate about breaking the stigma of mental health. In her role as a mental health nurse in a rural community, Melissa often can be found with more than 100 patients on her roster to tend to. The workload is sometimes heavy, but she believes that without mental health care, the community may face some challenges. Melissa believes that mental health care is just as essential as physical healthcare, yet it is often overlooked. She works tirelessly to advocate for mental health care every day.

Q: What does this award mean to you?

A: "This award means a lot to me because when I completed my BSN, I was working 40-hours per week in my current mental health nurse role. I also worked full time as a mom to my two young children, while losing a very large support person in my life to cancer. There were times were I did not know if I could handle the work load, but I did, and I did it well."

 

Q: What has been your greatest professional accomplishment?

A: "My greatest professional accomplishment was obtaining the mental health nurse position in the rural health clinic. When I came to this position, the clinic was not very organized, there was no provider or nurse. At this time I had helped our clinical director create policies, procedures, safety protocols, and triage procedures. We then obtained a psychiatric nurse practitioner, since then, we are seeing record amounts of patients. We have made awesome relationships with local primary care providers/clinics, pharmacies, and patients and their families. The one relationship I didn't mention was the relationship that has been formed with the county jail, as we collaborate before individuals are released and while they are incarcerated to start care while they are sober. This has produced really awesome outcomes for individuals and also feel that it will help the community be safer.  This is the first time in several years that the clinic has passed state audit without a single citation in the clinic."

 

Q: What does success look like to you?

 A "Success to me is ensuring that you are happy with where you are, even if it takes a while to get there. Things do not happen overnight, it takes a lot of hard work, dedication and a supportive group of people by your side."

 

Q: What challenges have you overcome to get here today?

A: "There have been quite a few challenges in getting to where I am today, a lot of major changes and job changes. I had the challenge of trying to continue my educational journey along with my career with two young children. I also lost a huge support person, my aunt, to cancer last July. She was a very large supporter in my life, and to be able to get through the tough times without her, were beyond challenging."

 

Q: What does earning your degree from WGU mean to you? 

A: "Earning my degree from WGU means a lot to me, without the flexibility to do my own life, and educational journey, I would not have been able to do this. With this degree I actually got accepted into Frontier Nursing University and started my Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner program in April of 2022."

 

Q: What advice do you have for your fellow Night Owls?

A: "The best advice I can give, is when you feel defeated or scared, keep on going, when you step outside your comfort zone is when you grow the most."

 

Q: Who is your inspiration?

A: "My inspiration is my grandmother. Ahe passed away from cancer in 2015. At that time I had no intention of becoming a nurse. Before she passed away, she told me about how great of a nurse I would be, and I laughed because I thought at that time, there was no way possible, but here I am today. I couldn’t be more thankful."

 

Q: What does the future look like for you?

A: "My future looks very bright, I am beyond excited to be able to care for individuals with mental health and substance abuse disorders in my rural community, as there is not enough help and assistance offered to those who need it."


Alumni making a difference.

Many WGU alumni are using their education to help improve the lives of others in their communities. We want to honor these outstanding achievers by recognizing them with the prestigious Distinguished Graduate Award

This award is given to select Night Owls whose work or volunteer efforts go above and beyond what is required by their employment, and who have made a significant positive difference in their community or career field.  

To nominate yourself or another WGU alum, please complete the form below.

Alumni Recognition Program

To be eligible to receive the Distinguished Graduate Award, candidates must fulfill each of the following requirements:

  • Be a WGU graduate.
  • Demonstrate how the nominee has made a significant impact in their community or career field.
  • Show how the nominee’s career/community/civic service goes “above and beyond'' that of others in their community or organization. 

Nominations must be submitted before January 31, 2023.