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Nearly 300 graduate at summer commencement

Aug. 5, 2019

As Melissa Silva walked across the stage to graduate Aug. 2, from the University of North Georgia (UNG), she became the first undergraduate student to complete the Realizing Inspiring Successful Educators (RISE) program.

As a RISE student, the Hall County Schools system paid Silva's tuition while she worked as a paraprofessional with elementary school English learners. Now, the Gainesville, Georgia, resident will receive a job offer from Hall County Schools thanks to the program.

But first she will complete a year as an English Teaching Assistant in Kyrgyz Republic through the Fulbright U.S. Student Program. The national fellowship enables graduates to pursue academic endeavors overseas.

"Fulbright is such a great opportunity to experience a different culture!" Silva said. "I love that it opened up job doors I never thought possible."

Silva was one of nearly 300 students who walked in the summer 2019 commencement ceremony in the Convocation Center on UNG's Dahlonega Campus. More than 450 degrees were conferred on undergraduates and graduate students. Separate commissioning ceremonies were held Aug. 2 for about 20 members of the Corps of Cadets entering the armed forces as second lieutenants.

Among the undergraduates was Lesley Jones, who earned her associate degree from UNG in 2009, then spent the next eight years selling her original greeting cards at comic book conventions to raise money for her education.

"I did at least 25 conventions a year," she said, adding that she kept her educational goal in mind. "I wanted to finish my bachelor's degree by the time I was 35."

Jones succeeded when she turned 35 one month before graduation. The Baldwin, Georgia, woman earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and plans to continue her education as a graduate student at UNG.

UNG graduate student Lauren Billet was one of three receiving a Master of Arts in International Affairs. She was the first UNG graduate student to apply for and win a David L. Boren Fellowship. It provides funding opportunities for U.S. graduate students to study less commonly taught languages in world regions critical to U.S. interests.

Billet said her experience of studying Arabic in Amman, Jordan, impacted her in significant ways, especially mentally.

"Living abroad opens your eyes and mind to issues and topics that you aren't truly aware of until you have that experience," she said.

Now she prompts other students to apply for scholarships that will fund their educational opportunities abroad.

Billet was among several graduate students receiving advanced degrees, including five who received UNG's first Master of Accountancy degrees. Dylan Warren, who earned his Bachelor of Business Administration in accounting in 2018, was one of them. He said the master's program arrived at the perfect time.

"It takes real-world technology being used by business and accounting firms and helps you learn not only how to use it, but how to apply it," he said.

An associate, bachelor's, master's, or doctorate degree gives new graduates more than the opportunity to start a new job, said Rodney Bullard, the commencement speaker and vice president of corporate social responsibility for Chick-fil-A Inc. and executive director of the Chick-fil-A Foundation.

"It is an opportunity to become a good leader and a hero," Bullard said. "The lesson for us to day is that it doesn't matter who you are or where you came from, each and every one of us have the ability to be someone else's hero."

He then asked the new graduates to hold hands and focus on the 3 feet around them.

"If we connect and use our own special superpower, our 3 feet, we can change Dahlonega, north Georgia, Georgia and the world," Bullard said.

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