University, local legislators celebrate accomplishments of graduating student veterans

May 12, 2023
By: Nancy Sheehan

Worcester State’s 2023 student veteran graduates were honored for their dedication, grit, and perseverance in the line of duty and in college at the inaugural Student Veteran Graduation and Award Dinner on May 2.

The event included keynote speakers, Worcester State University President Barry M. Maloney, and congratulatory remarks from members of the state legislative delegation. Veterans were presented with graduation regalia and state citations, and two student veterans received academic awards in recognition of contributions to the Worcester State University community. Fifteen student veterans are receiving their degrees during Commencement this year. 

“Here at Worcester State University, we have so many individuals to celebrate, and I’m overjoyed that we now have time dedicated to the remarkable journey of the student veterans,” said Dr. Stephanie Teixeira, the university’s new director of Military Affairs and Veteran Services. “Upon graduation the cohort will embark onto the next phases of their lives. Worcester State University has prepared these students to become commissioned officers, enter into graduate programs, continue their military service, and move into the corporate world.”

Student veterans often do not fit the mold of the traditional 18- to 22-year-old college student, Dr. Teixeira said. Compared with traditional undergraduate students, they are older, are twice as likely to have off-campus jobs, and have had a considerable amount of life experience before starting college. Student veterans also are more likely to be married and have at least one dependent.

Keynote speakers were U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Zak White and Jessie Teixeira, a veteran who served for eight years as a petty officer in the U.S. Navy.

Dr. White, a 20-year veteran, advised those who will be going into the military after graduation to lean on family, friends, and veterans as a source of strength. “You’re going to need it,” he said, addressing the group via Zoom. “The world is a dangerous place. The challenges we face today are different from the challenges I faced when I was you, but they’re no less difficult. Our nation still has adversaries working every day to make the world more dangerous for Americans. We need you.” 

Teixeira drew on her own experience trying out for Navy Aircrewman School, a physically demanding course for aircrew and rescue swimmer candidates, to advise students not to let failure define them. Teixeira was unable to complete the training because of a then-undiagnosed case of pneumonia but went on to a fulfilling military career in the Navy’s Coastal Riverine Squadron.

“Most people’s greatest fear is failure, but you’re going to fail at things,” Teixeira said. “Sometimes, it’s going to feel like you’re drowning. They say not to let your failures define you, but from failure comes defining moments. Know that every time you feel like you’re not good enough, it’s an opportunity to redefine yourself. Every single person sitting here today, you have all already overcome the odds…. for all those people who ever told you that you’re never going to make it, look at you now.”

President Maloney praised the group as positive role models for the rest of the Worcester State student body. “You embody sacrifice to this country and to our community,” he said. “You are able to juggle all of the demands that are in your life in a way that I think our students view as aspirational, and so I want to commend you all for the work that you have done and congratulate you on your service to our country.”

Members of the local legislative delegation who came to offer congratulations included state senators Anne Gobi, Robyn Kennedy, and Michael Moore, and state representative Michael Kushmerek.

Sen. Gobi, a member of the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs, thanked the honorees and recognized the special challenges students face while also being in the military. “My purpose for being here tonight is to say thank you so that you realize how much your service means, not just to your community, to your nation, but also to so many people that you touch in ways that you don’t even know,” she said.

Sen. Kennedy commended the students for their dedication and commitment. “Any time I’m in the presence of those in our community who have stepped up and chosen to serve our country, it’s truly humbling,” she said. “It’s a very unique individual who answers the call to action.”

Sen. Moore also thanked the group for stepping forward to serve. “It really does speak greatly about yourselves and what you believe in that you are willing to put everything on the line for all of us here,” he said. “We all should really remember this and remember to thank you.” 

Rep. Kushmerek said the dedication and selflessness of the graduates was cause for hope. “You turn on the TV, and there’s a lot to be discouraged and cynical about regardless of whether you’re looking at Ukraine or right here in our nation’s capital where one side can’t stand the other side,” he said. “I think there’s an antidote to all of that, and that’s finding a common cause and a common purpose, and nowhere is that on better display than in the United States Armed Forces.”

Student Veteran Academic Awards were presented to Emma Pelser, a communication sciences and disorders major, and John Himmelberger, an economics major. Dr. Teixeira said the students were selected because they were “considered to be major assets to their classrooms as student veterans. They embodied Worcester State University’s core values of academic excellence; engaged citizenship; promoting an open exchange of ideas, diversity and inclusiveness, civility, and integrity; and respecting their civilian counterparts and their community.”

As they received their awards, the students were joined by faculty members from their respective academic departments. Pelser was joined by Dr. Kristina Curro, associate professor and chair of the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorder, along with Dr. Kym Meyer, assistant professor in the department. 

Pelser enlisted in the Massachusetts Air Force National Guard in 2017 during her senior year of high school, saying she joined to fulfill her desire to help her country in times of crisis, specifically during national disasters. She continued to pursue her military career while at Worcester State. Pelser’s ambition is to be a voice for the voiceless by being a speech and language pathologist at a veteran affairs hospital or rehabilitation hospital. She has been accepted into Worcester State University’s master’s degree program in speech language pathology. 

Dr. Elizabeth Wark and Dr. Janice Yee, both professors of business administration and economics, joined Himmelberger for the presentation of his award.

Himmelberger is completing an undergraduate degree in economics and has the top cumulative GPA in the student veteran cohort. His professors say he exhibits enthusiasm, willingness to learn, professional appearance and behavior, and an intrinsic desire to understand how theories apply to real world solutions. He served seven years in the army after high school, including two years abroad in Germany.  His service record includes two Army Good Conduct Medals, the National Defense Service Medal, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and five Army Achievement Medals. 

Dr. Teixeira concluded the evening’s festivities by acknowledging the anonymous donor who supported the event and said the Department of Military Affairs and Veteran Services looks forward to bringing inclusive programming for military affiliated individuals to the Worcester State campus.  

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