Spring Hill College graduates told by speaker to not lose their integrity (photo gallery)

MOBILE, Alabama — Today, Melissa Garcia became the first in her family to graduate from college.

“I’m so happy and I’ve made my parents so proud,” said the 22-year-old Garcia, adding, “My parents come from poor backgrounds” and couldn’t afford to attend college.

She said her parents are her “inspiration.”

One of three children, the Houston resident received a bachelor’s of arts degree in graphic design during Saturday’s commencement at Spring Hill College.

She was one of 300 graduates who made the walk down the historic Avenue of the Oaks on Spring Hill’s campus for commencement.

Garcia also is among the first group of Donnelly Scholars to complete their undergraduate degree.

The Donnelly Scholars program was established in 2008 to serve first-generation college students at Spring Hill. The program is named in honor of the Rev. W. Patrick Donnelly, S.J, the 31st president of the college, who served from 1946 to 1952.

Garcia said if she can’t find a job in the Mobile area she plans to return home to Houston.

“It almost feels a bit surreal,” said 22-year-old Michelle Connor of Mobile as she waited to line up to receive her diploma. “It seems like we were just arriving on campus.”

Connor, who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in graphic design, is also a Donnelly Scholar.

Connor is also job-hunting for something in her field.

She said she’s proud of what she’s accomplished, but it’s “frightening as well” being out there without a job.

“Still, I’m ready to take the world head-on,” said Connor.

Senior Class Orator Brock Philip Boone, who graduated Magna Cum Laude, received mixed reactions during his speech, which drew some “boos” from the crowd when he told the graduates not to let Fox News and Rush Limbaugh sway their opinions.

He received mixed reaction when he said the money the government is spending in Afghanistan could be better used funding education and feeding the poor.

Sonja F. Bivins, United States magistrate judge for the Southern District of Alabama and a 1985 graduate of Spring Hill was the keynote speaker.

After earning her Bachelor of Science degree in political science from Spring Hill, Bivins attended the University of Alabama School of Law, where she was awarded her law degree in 1988. She was elected to the Spring Hill College board of trustees in 2007.

“Spring Hill had such a huge impact on my life,” Bivins said during her address to the students. “I never imagined that one day I would be commencement speaker.”

Bivins said she was fortunate in high school to be selected to participate in the Upward Bound program, which “targets economically disadvantaged” high school students who come from homes in which no one had graduated from college.

The Upward Bound Program at Spring Hill College is a national, federally funded program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education’s TRIO Program. The program is designed to motivate, develop and prepare students to be successful in high school and to successfully graduate from college.

Bivins said it wasn’t until years later that she “came to value the Jesuit education.”

“It equipped me to go on to law school and helped me to develop leadership skills,” said Bivins.

She said it also “equipped me for a lifetime of service to my community.”

She encouraged the graduates to “reflect on the obstacles you had to overcome and the lessons you learned on the way.”

The magistrate judge said she would “be remiss” if she didn’t encourage the students to “answer the call to jury duty,” which drew laughter from the crowd.

She reminded the graduates that “each of us is made by God, and he has a purpose for our lives.”

“I encourage you to discover God’s purpose in you life,” Bivins told the graduates.

She encouraged the students to never lose their integrity.

She said one only has to look at recent scandals that have made headlines, from investment adviser and financier Bernie Madoff to the New Orleans Saints professional football team.

Madoff was imprisoned in 2009 for an $18 billion investment fraud, while the Saints have received league sanctions for a bounty system in which some team members were rewarded for injuring opposing players.

“You must hold onto your integrity at all costs,” Bivins told the students.

Bivins reminded the graduates that “service to others is one of the cornerstones of the Spring Hill experience.”

“I hope you will take that strong commitment of service with you.” 

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