A dream no longer deferred
Decades after she started, a student earns her degree
Judith Hough did a lot in 40 years – she raised a family, developed a career as a classroom assistant who helped young children with developmental disabilities, and so much more.
But one thing was unfinished: her college degree.
On May 13, during undergraduate Commencement at the Convocation Center, she checked that off the list, too, receiving her Bachelor of Social Work degree.
“I got two years in,” Hough says of her experience at Cal U from 1977 to 1979. She started as an early childhood education major and then changed her major to biology.
“I did OK, but I’d skipped my last year of high school at Ringgold to enroll in college and just wasn’t ready for the college experience.”
The incomplete degree stuck with her. Unfinished business.
“I came to campus … and decided to stop in at Academic Records just to see what it would take to come back,” Hough says. “They said all of my previous credits would count.”
So, in 2014, she picked up where she left off. She received a Rutledge Family Scholarship, which is awarded to nontraditional students, many of them with families. And she did well enough academically to be recognized as a Presidential Scholar at Honors Convocation this spring.
She has been accepted into the Master of Social Work program at Cal U.
“I think I’m a better student now,” Hough says. “I know exactly what I want, and I don’t want to waste any time.”
Hough has words of wisdom for today’s college students, who, like herself all those years ago, may find the road to a diploma difficult: “Don’t stop. Do anything you can to finish your degree. People will help you. I’ll help you — I’ll be your study buddy. But don’t quit. Stay in school.”
She has some advice for their parents, too: “I’d tell them that it’s never too late to go back.”
'Acknowledge people's stengths'
Hough was one of nearly 1,300 graduate and undergraduate members of the Class of 2017, many of whom attended ceremonies May 12 and 13 in the Convocation Center.
“I am proud of you, our graduates, for your hard work and the sacrifices you made to get to this point,” University President Geraldine M. Jones told them. “I encourage you always to discover and acknowledge people’s strengths, and to utilize those strengths on behalf of the greater good.
“No matter what career path you choose, those special moments you spend taking time to understand, help and mentor others will shape you into an even greater human being.”
Before undergraduates received their diplomas, senior class envoy Chelsea Keenan presented President Jones with a check for more than $14,000 contributed by graduating seniors and their families.
With this gift, more than $184,000 has been raised for an endowed scholarship since 2010, when the first senior class donation was delivered.
President Jones acknowledged Kelsee Emma Cox, Leah Marie Seader and Juliana Marie Lapek for earning bachelor’s degrees while attaining a perfect 4.0 grade-point average.
“Please recognize that your education is not done,” she told the Class of 2017. “I have always believed in the power of lifelong learning to enrich our lives. “May you find happiness and satisfaction in the days and years ahead.”
'Find your swing'
The Legend of Baggar Vance tells the story of a golfer who is having a difficult time. He attempts to recover his game, and his life, with help from a mystical caddy who tells him to “find his swing.”
Commencement speaker Thomas L. Bakaitus Jr. ’83 used the story as a metaphor when addressing the graduates.
“Inside, each and every one of us has our own authentic swing, something that’s ours and ours alone,” said Bakaitus, a certified public accountant, partner and operating officer at Herbein + Company Inc., a CPA firm employing more than 180 people in eight offices in Pennsylvania.
“As you stand on this threshold today, knowing the quality of education you have received … you are ready and equipped to begin your journey.
“Class, it’s time to play your game with your true swing.”
Before the ceremonies, Bakaitus reflected on his Cal U experience.
“I developed relationships that have endured,” he says. “I met my wife (Beth Bershok ’84) at the (WCAL) radio station in 1981.
“You don’t always think about your education. It’s like your right hand — always there, always has been. But when you think about how important your right hand is, you realize the impact.
“I was the first in my family to go to college, and I thought I was going to learn the business side (so I could) work at our construction company. But in my second semester I walked into an accounting class, and my life changed forever.”
He’d found his niche: Between 2010 and 2017, Pittsburgh Magazine recognized Bakaitus six times as a Five-Star Wealth Manager in Individual Tax, and in 2015 the National Academy of Public Accounting Professionals named him one of the top 10 in his field in Pittsburgh.
Bakaitus’ words resonated with Harry Wietrzykowski II, who was forced to make a career change after 30 years in the workforce. He regained his swing by earning a master’s degree in legal studies, with a concentration in law and public policy.
The Global Online student traveled from Green Cove Springs, Fla., to take part in Commencement.
“Cal U has been a blessing to me,” he says. “The education, the professors — it’s all been great. I’m proud to have had the chance to earn a degree here. I would recommend Cal U to anybody.”