Madeleine Fisk addressed Utah State University-Moab's graduating Class of 2017 during the school's commencement ceremony at the Grand Center on Thursday, April 27. [Photo by Penny Richards / Courtesy of Utah State University-Moab]

Alicia Cooper probably could have gone on to a better-known university, but would someone like Sam Sturman have been there to help out when an unexpected illness almost sidelined her on exam day?

The Utah State University-Moab graduate student and master’s in social work major made it through the illness – and one exam, in particular, thanks to USU-Moab academic adviser Sturman’s concern for her. On Thursday, April 27, Cooper joined 23 other students from the Class of 2017 who received their associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees during the school’s commencement ceremony at the Grand Center.

As she looked back on her experiences as an undergraduate and a graduate student at the school, Cooper said one memory in particular of Sturman stands out to her as a perfect illustration of the school’s commitment to each student’s needs.

One year, as an undergraduate, Cooper fell ill and was still under the weather on a day when she was scheduled to take an exam. When she showed up at the campus with her then-toddler in tow, Sturman lined up a private room where Cooper could take the exam without spreading any bugs to other students.

His concern for her didn’t stop there: While Cooper took the exam, Sturman volunteered to look after her daughter.

“She was just sitting on his lap, coloring and hanging out,” Cooper said. “… It’s just one of the examples of faculty members going above and beyond to make sure that students have what they need to succeed.”

In contrast to universities that have a “corporate, mid-level management feel” to them – and where students are just another name to school administrators – USU-Moab’s administrative team feels like family, she said.

“Here, people recognize you,” she said. “They’re cheering for you, and they want you to succeed.”

Like Cooper, Canyonlands Care Center’s Social Services Director Alison Hillis grew up in Moab. But as an undergraduate, she attended Western Washington University in Bellingham to experience a different part of the country, and later transferred to Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

When she enrolled at USU-Moab to obtain her master’s degree in social work, Hillis found herself in a small program with Cooper and just two other students.

“It’s a much more personalized experience than Colorado State,” she said. “The smallest class I ever took at Colorado State probably had 30 people.”

Since the master’s in social work program at USU-Moab is spread over the course of three years, Hillis was able to concentrate on her studies while continuing to work full-time at the care center. The program’s placements fit her interests in health care and geriatrics, allowing her to perform her practicum at the care center and Moab Regional Hospital.

Cooper, meanwhile, performed her practicum at Four Corners Community Behavioral Health, which ultimately hired her.

The opportunity to participate in a similar kind of program that merges hands-on learning experiences with academic studies is one that drew Claire Core to USU-Moab.

Core, who graduated last week with a bachelor’s degree in ecologically based community development, wasn’t sure what she wanted to do before she moved to Grand County. The Midwest native previously attended the University of Iowa, and after she moved to Moab to work as a student intern with local nonprofit Community Rebuilds, she resumed her studies in the fall of 2014.

“When I found out about (a) permaculture internship that combines real-world experiences with an academic pathway, that’s what got me back (into university),” she said.

Working with Sustainable Communities Extension Specialist Dr. Roslyn Brain, Core has been an instrumental part of Moab’s Bee-Inspired Gardens Initiative. Since it began several years ago, the initiative has established pollinator-friendly gardens in and around Moab, including one that took root at Moab Charter School under Core’s guidance.

“I think that what the degree sets me up to do is work as a social entrepreneur, creating my own path and doing work that is meaningful to the community and meaningful to the environment,” Core said.

As the mother of a newborn child, Core said she’s especially impressed that USU-Moab is home to so many non-traditional students, such as parents with young children, or older people.

“It’s a really accepting environment on campus,” Core said.

Kacy Barlow, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, initially enrolled at USU-Moab as a matter of convenience: She was living in Old La Sal, and while distance learning programs were available elsewhere, she valued the in-person instruction that USU-Moab offered her.

“They have real quality programs there, and their teachers are great,” she said. “Plus, their advisers and other people who work there are invested in your future.”

Barlow has since started up her own business – Premier Lodging – and she described the months since last September as a whirlwind, as she juggled her studies and business responsibilities while raising a family.

At this point, Barlow is happy to be done with her studies, and she encourages those who are thinking about attending university to apply to USU-Moab for the quality of education she received.

“The sooner, the better,” she said. “I actually regret not starting my degree sooner.”

Cooper, who addressed her fellow graduates during a commencement speech, ultimately encouraged them to consider the simpler side of life.

“I feel like the big message I was trying to impart was to be aware of wonder, meaning, ‘Pay attention to the little details and get lost in these small moments that make up our days,’” she said.

In her case, the little details might involve something as minor as watching her children as they go about their lives.

“It allows me to pay attention to how simple things can be, instead of getting lost in the complexities we feel when we’re stressed,” she said.

Two dozen students receive associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degrees at April 27 ceremony