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Graduation 2017

Banner graphic of multicolored sand


April 28th 2017 was the StepUP graduation celebration. Thirty students graduated the StepUP program this year, seventeen of which graduated Augsburg College. The event was opened up by Vice President of Student Affairs Ann Garvey, who gave us a wonderful introduction to the students who are moving on. She reflected: “And of course, while we planned on you arriving at this point: from using, to treatment, to recovery, to Augsburg, to graduation- it’s a little sad to see some of the faces out there.” Indeed it is, but as she later mentions, StepUP has a constantly growing network of alumni. Our spirit of service and community will keep graduated students in contact for years to come. After Ann finished her introduction, we heard from StepUP Director Patrice Salmeri.

Patrice pouring ceremonial sand

Patrice introduced the staff, and guided the parents of the graduates through a “trip down memory lane”. She asked them to remember their son or daughter as just a kindergartner, and then an elementary school student- full of potential. To remember how things started to change in junior high or middle school, when they discovered a new friend in drugs and alcohol. How a distance started to grow between themselves and their child. The purpose of this reflection was to introduce a powerful idea: the child in front of them now is the same child they saw back in kindergarten- a child they once feared was gone forever. Patrice asked the students to relish in who they had become, the family they had become through conquering their fears, the shared grief, and their individual accomplishments. Most recovering people will acknowledge that humility is essential in facing the challenge of continued abstinence and healing. That day some pride was well deserved and appropriate.

We then heard from the first student speaker of the night, Alex A. Alex shared his story as a person in recovery and his unsuccessful attempts at school before finding sobriety. He eventually found his way to StepUP from some of our outreach to treatment centers. Despite being older than most of the other students on campus, he dealt with many of the same struggles. He wanted to make friends, be liked, and to succeed academically. For Alex, StepUP was the best possible solution. Here was a program with dozens of other students going through the exact same thing. The community he entered was incredibly welcoming, “there was always something going on” he said, and he was always included. He distinctly remembers a serendipitous moment where he realized a new friend of his in StepUP was the son of his arresting officer back when he was using.  “I knew then I was in the right place” he said with good humor. Since that first orientation, Alex has faced all of the fears he entered StepUP with through the help of this community:

“StepUP- it’s changed my life. It’s changed the person I am.”

Photo of Alex A

During the first medallion ceremony, Patrice gave a brief introduction to some current and graduated StepUP students that are now graduating Augsburg College. After telling us the degree they earned, and honors they received, she presented them with a beautiful medallion to commemorate their graduation from the StepUP program. Later in the program, each StepUP counselor brought the students they had been working with on stage and did the same.

Photo of StepUP Graduation Medallions

The Graduates

(asterisk denotes Augsburg graduation)

Alex A Jordan B*
Michael B* James B*
Judd B* Audrey C*
Ian C* Taylor D
Kate E Blake H*
Isaac H* Maggie H*
Madeleine H Farris H
Connor J Alex J
Christian J* Matthew J
Connie K Matt K
Jordan L Sara M*
Collins N Neil O*
Matthew R* Adam S
Nicholas S * Ricky T*
Payton T Devin W*

The second student speaker of the celebration was Audrey C, both a StepUP and an Augsburg graduate. She reminisced about the one-trip move she made into Oren Gateway center, with the help of another StepUP graduate- Sara M. She remembered studying late night in coffee shops and diners. Audrey reflected on the challenges she faced when she started off her college career saying “yes” to everything, favors, jobs, and people. Augsburg and StepUP taught her how to take healthy risks and be engaged, but a balance was necessary, and boundaries needed to be set. That’s how Audrey decided that the three most important words of her college experience were “Yes, No, And”.  Audrey was the editor of the  Augsburg newspaper The Echo for two years, and designed the annual art and literary magazine Murphy Square for another two years. Artistic expression and freedom was a significant shaping force in Audrey’s four years. Her peers and counselors taught her how to love others unconditionally, and without reservation. Audrey says:

“Today I say no to compromise, I say no to settling for the comfortable, I say no to work for experience, I say no to fear and dishonesty, I say no to giving up, self-doubt, and insecurity, I say no to the societal message that I couldn’t do this because I am a first generation college student and a woman, I say no to the chaotic head-space of living in the past and the future at the same time.”


Photo of Audrey C. Speaking at the Podium

Today Audrey says yes to all the challenges she can handle, but no more than that. She explained how she adopted a legacy of values from StepUP, and hopes to leave a piece of her own: “When I came to StepUP I tried to be everything that I was not. So thank you for helping me find out who I am”.

After Kristin Wilcox presented her students with their medallions, the audience enjoyed a slideshow of the graduating student’s journey through StepUP. After all the sighs and chuckles from the photos captured over the years, Shane Jensen brought up his students for their medallion ceremony.

Blake Halvorson was the third and last student speaker of the night. Blake charmed the audience with his usual combination of dry humor and genuine disposition when he described his first attempt at college: “I lasted quite a while- about a semester. I picked up some credits there, as well as a drug habit”. He told us about how he went through cycles of attempting school, but not quite making it. Blake’s poignant description of how we abandon our pre-using plans for our futures after repeatedly failing at smaller and smaller commitments exemplified the strength of a program like StepUP. It can turn someone absolutely devoid of hope, like Blake was, into someone with more prospects than they can count, like Blake does. When he first started at StepUP, he dove into service and academics without reservation. Working in the StepUP office quickly got him connected with the other students. Blake speaks on his transformation:

“I’ve been able to develop into the man that, as a kid, I wanted to be- that my family knew I could be.”

Photo of Patrice introducing Blake H. to the stage

After giving a brief acknowledgment to all of the people that helped him succeed, we moved on to the medallion ceremony for Thenedra Root’s students.

The last of the evenings programming was the sand ceremony. For the past nine years, StepUP graduates have been pouring colored sand into a glass cylinder. Why the sand ceremony? Patrice explains: “As I pour the sand- and you can see the sand that’s been poured over the past nine years- you can’t separate grains of sand from one another. Just as you can never separate yourselves from the experiences you have here. The sand will stay forever.” She adds “You are adding to so many groups of students who have gone before you, the legacy piece. It’s about the community of people coming together, and holding a space for each other. It’s about how StepUP will always be a space for you. And you can never separate yourself from that.” Each student then poured their little portion of yellow and purple sand (this year’s StepUP colors).

Photo of glass cylinder full of multi-colored sand

Patrice gave some closing remarks to wrap up the graduation event. She told us StepUP is 20 years old, and has served exactly 800 students so far, which definitely earned its hearty round of applause. Patrice turned the focus on the students, and spoke about how they have impacted her life. Through the ripples of interactions with the hundreds of students over the years, she could not possibly avoid being greatly affected. What moves the students, moves her. Through teary eyes, she recalled how impressive it is that Augsburg had the forethought to start this tiny pilot program, when other schools said “we don’t wasn’t those students on our campus”. Looking back, Patrice says confidently “Well you are those students, and I would take you anywhere with me”. Near the end of her remarks, she thanked the alumni for providing support and hope for current students, and shared how excited she was to be working with alumni across the country as part of her new position as Executive Director for Recovery Advancement. Patrice commended the StepUP staff for taking on the noble task of creating a space for people who really needed it. She left the students with the following: “Don’t let the noise of others opinions drown out your own inner voice. You have found your voices here. Most importantly, have the courage to follow your heart and your intuition, and as Ian would say- your logic. Because somewhere, inside your heart, intuition and logic- they somehow already know who you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Congratulations to the thirty students who graduated, and thank you for the legacy you left behind.

Photography by Neil King