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FIRST CLASS: Grads form bond, remember lost classmate

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The first students to graduate from a Master's degree program through Averett University at Crossroads Institute formed a close bond as they worked through challenging classwork and coped with the loss of a classmate.

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By PATRICK SMITH and SHAINA STOCKTON, Staff
Six residents of the Twin Counties completed a two-year journey last month when Crossroads Higher Education Center in Galax, in conjunction with Averett University, held a pinning ceremony for the group to recognize the conclusion of the area’s first Masters degree program.
Aaron Blackburn, David Payne, Norma Quesinberry, Angela Edwards, Travis Belton and Joanie Newman each completed a two-year course to receive their business administration degrees, which proved to be a challenging and emotional ride.
Along the way, the class bonded and supported one another through both classwork and personal struggles, including the heartbreaking loss of a classmate who died just short of the end of the program.
Stephanie Pack Bryant became an inspiration to her classmates, as she worked hard to complete her studies while fighting cancer.
While in a hospital room, her condition terminal, Bryant became the first official graduate of the distance learning Master’s degree program in a special bedside ceremony.
She died a few weeks later, and her classmates recognized her by wearing buttons honoring her life at their graduation last month.

A Tight Bond
Before they knew that the Averett/Crossroads partnership existed, Payne recalled his and Quesinberry’s extensive research to find the perfect Masters degree program. Both were employed at Twin County Regional Hospital, and they hoped to find an option that would work around their busy schedules. “We were looking at and debating factors such as how far we would have to drive,” Payne said.
Dr. Oliver McBride, Crossroads Institute’s executive director and a member of the hospital board, mentioned to them that Averett was looking to start a Masters program in the area.
They started out in a small room at Crossroads, attending their classes via video feed on a 27-inch television. They called that room as "the closet," laughing as they described their earlier semesters spent crowded around the television to see and hear their professor.
“They call Crossroads a business incubator. I guess that was why!” laughed Edwards, envisioning chicks tightly packed in a small space.
Eventually, they were moved to Crossroads’ Higher Education Center, the facility’s new building on Cranberry Road in Galax. To assist specifically with educational telecommunications, the building is fitted with the most state-of-the-art projection technology, and is split into multiple conference areas with retractable divider walls to fit anything from smaller classes to large conferences.

CROSSROADS OFFERS NEW DEGREE PROGRAMS — READ MORE HERE

As the distance learning program evolved, the group expanded to include seven individuals, who worked together on hands-on projects and group assignments.
The key factor to their success, they all agreed, was their ability to conveniently attend classes in the area without having to sacrifice real classroom interaction.
This was the deciding factor for Belton. “We have been through a lot together... more than I ever thought entering into this whole thing,” he said. “I wouldn’t have made it through the program without these guys. We had to rely on each other a lot, emotionally, mentally and physically.”
Going through the program together, the small group became a tight group of friends — complete with friendly rivalries and 2 a.m. panicked phone calls over assignments.
“We are cohesive, and we soon learned where [each of us] were strongest, so we organized the work and pulled together to get things done,” said Quesinberry.
Payne agreed. “Trust I think was the biggest thing. It doesn’t take long working with a group to find where certain strengths lie. Everyone was given a part, and I didn’t have to check behind them or do something else behind them,” he said. The others nodded, and added that their outlook on group projects had changed from negative to positive throughout the program.
The class had to persevere through both the difficulty that comes with juggling full-time jobs and the high expectations of their classes.
Then, the unexpected hit them when they lost a classmate along the way.

Losing a Classmate
Baywood resident Stephanie Pack Bryant, the seventh member of the class, lost her fight against breast cancer with only three classes remaining. The other members of the group held her in high regard, and she served as an inspiration to them because of her determination, fighting against all odds to complete her degree.
In addition to working diligently through the Masters course, she also was chief financial officer at Twin County Regional Hospital and a beloved wife and mother. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2011 and began the MBA program through Averett that same month.
Cynthia Pack, Bryant’s mother, was present at the pinning ceremony. She and the other classmates shed tears as they shared their memories of Bryant.
She was a dedicated student and classmates said that, even as her condition worsened, Bryant continued to give everything she had to the program.
“On some days, we would hear that she’d had a rough night and probably wouldn’t be here,” Blackburn recalled of when Bryant was taking her chemotherapy treatments. “But then we’d be sitting here, and she would walk right in!”
Payne spoke to her about her determination one day. “She told me, ‘you could do it too,’” he said. He shook his head, but Bryant repeated herself. “You could.”
She continued attending regularly until she was hospitalized, her condition terminal. With only three classes remaining, the university decided to award Bryant her degree with a ceremony conducted in her hospital room. The president of the university even rearranged his schedule to make it to her ceremony.
“That showed us just how much Averett truly cares. I was so happy to see them give that to Stephanie,” said Blackburn.
Pack and the students agreed that this was the best thing that could have been done for Bryant. “Besides her son, that degree was the most important thing to Stephanie,” said Pack. “After they left, she told everyone in the hospital who would listen... she kept saying, ‘Did you know what happened to me tonight? Did you know about my surprise?’”
Next to the pins they received from Averett, each student wore a pin that day with Bryant’s picture, in acknowledgement of their friendship and her success in being the first to graduate from the program through Crossroads.
Now that their journey is over, the students agreed that they took more away from the program than just a degree. “These are some amazing people sitting here,” Payne said. “If it wasn’t for this, I probably never would have met some of them.”
Blackburn agreed. “This experience was beyond getting our MBA. We have worked through a lot of trials and adversities. To get this opportunity right here in my hometown is priceless,” he said.
Through interacting with his peers, Belton and Newman both agreed that they now have several new perspectives that will help them in the future. “I’ve learned something from everyone here, and couldn’t have asked for a better group,” said Belton.
The program impacted their lives personally, and the students also acknowledge the community impact that this degree program will someday have.
Blackburn thanked Dr. McBride for the effort that Crossroads has orchestrated and will continue to build upon. “You have done an amazing thing here,” he said. “I feel like this is the start for something that could propel our community into a different place.”
Edwards nodded. “I hope that this will show people that this is an employable area,” she added.

STEPHANIE BRYANT SCHOLARSHIP

A scholarship was recently set up at Grayson County High School, where Bryant graduated in 1991. The scholarship was established by an anonymous donor and will award one $500 scholarship each year to a student who plans to enter a higher educational institute at an accredited college or university. The first scholarship will be awarded to a senior in the class of 2013.
The following guidelines will be used to determine the annual winner of this scholarship award:
• Must plan to attend an accredited college or university;
• Must have maintained a 3.0 or higher GPA (A-B average);
• Has overcome adversity
• Has exhibited positive attitude through adversity
• Must submit an essay on how they overcome adversity as part of the application
• One reference letter of recommendation