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250 graduate from UNG at summer commencement

2018 summer commencement 2
250 students graduated from UNG at summer commencement on Aug. 3 at the Convocation Center on UNG's Dahlonega Campus.
Link to transcript

Sharon Blackwell Schmidt was one of the 250 students to receive their degree during University of North Georgia’s (UNG) summer commencement ceremony on Aug. 3.

Schmidt started her undergraduate work at UNG at age 26 and became a parent during that time. Five and a half years after first enrolling, Schmidt made sure she finished her degree as an example to her 4-year-old son, Liam.

"I had a lot of friends and family that were worried I wouldn't finish school after my son was born," Schmidt said. "I've persevered and I've made it through."

Earning a degree is part of a larger dream Schmidt has held since childhood: becoming a marine biologist. After starting college as an international affairs major, she switched to biology.

Schmidt, who is from Dahlonega, Georgia, and has also lived in White County, thought she would transfer to a larger school after a year in biology at UNG. With professors like Dr. Nancy Dalman, who is head of the biology department, and a strong supplemental instruction system, she quickly realized she didn't need to go anywhere else.

"I realized I wouldn't get the quality and the level of attention somewhere else," Schmidt said.

She took a tropical reef ecology course with Dalman in Belize in 2016. She also worked in the Shellfish Research Lab for an internship in Savannah, Georgia, during summer 2017, seeking to help revive Georgia's oyster industry. This summer she was part of a group from UNG digging for fossils near Brunswick, Georgia.

Schmidt expressed gratitude for being part of such adventurous research, including her Brunswick work and the chance to present her oyster research at the Tri-Beta National Conference in Monterey Bay, California. She also presented her research at UNG's annual Research Conference in March. A McNair scholarship and a National Science Foundation S-STEM scholarship provided funding for her research and the chance to present it.

"She's taken advantage of every opportunity she can," Dalman said. "She's done great with all of it."

Schmidt was also a lab teacher's assistant (TA), earning an award this spring as the biology department's top student TA, and offered free biology tutoring to other students. She also served as treasurer for UNG's chapter of Tri-Beta, a biology honor society. Even with so much on Schmidt's plate, Dalman saw her excel in whatever she did.

"She's really thorough and organized and responsible," Dalman said. "I knew if I asked her to do something, it would get done."

In addition to the resources at her disposal, the relationships were an integral part of Schmidt's time at UNG.

"I'm not sure that I would have felt as welcomed and accepted anywhere else as I did here," she said. "I've made a lot of great friends that I know I'll stay in contact with years down the road."

As she prepares to apply to graduate schools for spring or fall 2019, Schmidt's focus is coral reef conservation. The efforts at preserving reefs in Belize inspired her.

"It's unfortunate that even in protected areas they're continuing to decline," Schmidt said.

She hasn't yet decided where she will continue her studies, though Dalman said Schmidt has a strong enough body of work to skip a master's degree and jump right into doctorate work.

Schmidt is grateful to her husband, Paul, for his support throughout her time at UNG, as well as the efforts of her parents, grandmother and mother-in-law in helping her make it to this point.

UNG alumnus Dr. Stephen Pruitt, president of the Southern Regional Education board, was the keynote speaker at the Aug. 3 commencement in the Convocation Center on UNG's Dahlonega Campus. He encouraged the graduates to remember how important UNG has been to them.

"What North Georgia did for me was help me realize I always had a seat at the big table," Pruitt said.

Separate commissioning ceremonies were held earlier Aug. 3 for 11 members of the Corps of Cadets entering the armed forces as second lieutenants.

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