Utah State University-Moab graduates Kendra Davis, left, Josh Green, Nancy Kosa and Alison Reese line up at the Grand Center on Thursday, April 23 during the school's commencement ceremony. Estrella Montoya, who received her GED through the university, is also pictured. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Utah State University-Moab’s graduating class of 2015 is so small that it doesn’t pose much of a threat to the established social order.

“Our dignitary to student ratio is about three to one, so if there were to be a student uprising, for example, we would at least have a fighting chance,” USU-Moab Dean and Executive Director Steve Hawks said.

Hawks was speaking at the university’s 2015 commencement ceremony on Thursday, April 23, and while those particular words were said in jest, he also had some heartfelt praise for the seven women and two men in the spotlight.

That was the whole purpose of the ceremony at the Grand Center, after all. Hawks and a full crowd of other dignitaries were there to honor nine of the 11 candidates for graduation who obtained bachelor’s and associate’s degrees from the university, as well as one woman who obtained her GED through the school.

Graduates like Sommer Stewart, who earned a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies with an emphasis in health education, found much to admire about the university.

Stewart was born and raised in Moab, and she attended a number of other colleges over the years, including her previous alma mater of Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. As she continued her education at the much-smaller USU-Moab, she said she found that the guidance she received from her mentors and advisers was far more attentive and personalized.

Hawks said that much of the credit for their success goes to the students themselves, whose perseverance, dedication and commitment to their studies led them to where they are now.

According to Hawks, the average USU-Moab student is 35 years old, has a family and works full time, while taking two evening classes per semester. The academic strategy those students follow takes a long time to come to fruition, and it’s only possible through great personal expense and sacrifice, he said.

They’re entering the next stage of their lives at a critical juncture, as Moab faces critical challenges moving forward.

It’s impossible, Hawks said, to find good-quality affordable housing, and it’s difficult to find local jobs that pay living wages. Yet through their achievement, he said, the graduates have begun to open doors for themselves that will help bolster their standards of living, while improving the quality of life for others around them.

“It places them where they can make a strong and meaningful contribution to the community that they live in, and that is worth celebrating,” Hawks said.

USU-Moab Associate Director Sam Sturman introduced graduate and student speaker Abbie Long as someone whose life always centered on school and the outdoors.

Long comes from a family of educators, and during her childhood along the Wasatch Front, she grew up skiing, hiking, camping and mountain biking.

Her arrival at USU-Moab marked a return of sorts: Long first entered the world of higher education at USU’s main campus in Logan.

At the time, she loved being in college. But she did not love the idea of being in class, she said, and her goal quickly slipped away from her.

Long can now say that she was not mature enough in those days to handle the experience.

Eventually, she came up with a better plan: She would move to Moab and become a river guide, with no intention of going back to school.

“The consequence of moving to Moab is one that I never could have imagined,” she said.

One day, she walked into USU-Moab to take a test for river guides. In the year or so that followed, Long had to confront her fears about failing again, until she knew she was finally ready to take that first step all over again.

“This time, I knew it was right,” she said.

Today, Long serves as the Girls on the Run program coach at Helen M. Knight Elementary, where she helps girls in grades three through six build self-confidence and set goals for themselves, while promoting positive social, mental and physical health.

She’s also a certified yoga paddleboard instructor, and while her plans for the future seem to change every day, she wants to become involved with environmental outreach and education.

Hawks joked that the school’s strategy of offering tests to people like Long is paying off.

“The only reason we give river guide tests at USU-Moab is to recruit students,” he said.

Other graduates from the recreation resource management program followed similar paths.

Eric Demuth arrived in Moab by way of Minneapolis and Salt Lake City to be close to the area’s national parks, and his experiences here ignited his passion never to live in a city again, Sturman said.

In between her studies, Teralin Petereit became the face of USU-Moab. Her image appears on a billboard along U.S. Highway 191, and features prominently in statewide advertisements that call attention to the university’s regional campuses. She even appears in a promotional video on the university’s website.

According to Sturman, Petereit found that her decision to study in Moab was an easy one to make, since her mother taught her to work hard, and play harder.

Petereit said the hands-on opportunity to study something she cares about was exactly what she needed.

Alison Reese, meanwhile, said she hopes to use her educational background in recreation resources management to teach area visitors how to share her love – and respect – of the land.

Hawks predicts that recreation resource management graduates like Reese will go on to fill key positions in the community, and that’s the kind of thing that USU President Stan Albrecht likes to hear.

“This is exactly the model we had in mind when we began to expand and grow our (program),” Albrecht said.

Students who focused on other areas of study are already well-established in the community.

Moab Valley Multicultural Center Executive Director Rhiana Medina graduated with a bachelor’s degree in family life studies.

Medina said she drew inspiration from two of the biggest heroes in her life: her mother, and the late poet and author Maya Angelou. Both women taught her the importance of taking responsibility and working hard.

“It feels amazing to accomplish this goal,” Medina said. “The best part about going to USU is the community of Moab. I could not have worked three jobs, raised two little girls, and gotten this degree without this support of so many amazing people. I felt like everyone really wanted me to succeed.”

Lifelong Grand County resident Josh Green, meanwhile, decided to continue his education after a work-related accident left him partially disabled, knowing that he needed to reinvent himself to succeed in the new economy.

Sturman introduced Kendra Davis as someone who was committed to hard work, even when it seemed easier to give up. Davis said the example she set for her children kept her “trudging forward,” according to Sturman.

Finally, there’s Nancy Kosa, who began working toward her associate’s degree in the summer of 2012.

It was quite a struggle for her to manage everything as a mother, a wife and a part-time student, Sturman said, but she pushed through and accomplished her goals.

Although Kosa is probably ready for a break, Sturman is hoping that she returns to the campus in the near future: He publicly challenged her in front of a full crowd at the Grand Center, urging her to consider a bachelor’s degree in the same field.

Graduates honored for academic achievement

It places them where they can make a strong and meaningful contribution to the community that they live in, and that is worth celebrating.