GRADUATION DAY UA Little Rock students prepare for post-pandemic future
May 16-22, 2022
By Angelita Faller
Each May, thousands of Arkansans, both young and old, make their way across a stage to celebrate a major achievement in life – college graduation.
This ceremonial walk marks the end of an era as new graduates say goodbye to their former colleges and universities and prepare for their next phase in life.
At the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, more than 1,250 students received their college degrees May 14, and hundreds celebrated their achievements during three ceremonies at the Jack Stephens Center. Now the new graduates are preparing for the next steps as they pursue new careers, homes, and advanced education. Here’s what comes next for some members of the Class of 2022.
Tripti Shukla, who earned dual bachelor’s degrees in biology and chemistry, has found success in biochemistry research, for which she’s won many accolades, and clinical volunteer work at Kavanaugh COVID Clinic and Harmony Health Clinic.
“I helped distribute vaccines at the Kavanaugh COVID Clinic,” Shukla said. “It was a meaningful experience because it felt like I was working to save lives. Volunteering at Harmony Health Clinic has helped me put a perspective on what it will be like during the next 10 years as a medical doctor. It solidified my interest in medicine and helping others.”
A native of India, Shukla moved to the U.S. when her father was transferred to work in Arkansas when she was just 11. Now she graduates from UA Little Rock as the 2022 Edward L. Whitbeck Memorial Award, the top honor given to a graduating student at UA Little Rock.
After taking a gap year where she will continue research and clinical work, Shukla is headed to medical school in 2023, where she will pursue a career as either a medical doctor or medical researcher.
Chika Okoli, an international nursing student, has already begun a new career in the healthcare industry. Determined to begin a new life in the U.S., Chika Okoli traveled overseas with his two oldest sons to pursue his nursing degree while his wife, who was pregnant at the time, remained in Nigeria. The family would stay separated for more than two years while they waited for Mrs. Okoli’s VISA to be approved.
Okoli now works as a nurse at a mental health facility with the Arkansas Department of Human Services and will graduate with his bachelor’s degree in nursing this summer.
A firm believer in the power of education, Okoli plans to earn a Doctor of Nursing Practice from UAMS with an emphasis in psychiatry in the future.
“One thing that worked for me is that I thrive pretty well under pressure,” Okoli said. “I am doing this for a purpose. That pressure is what drives me and gets me to do well. If you are coming into nursing, the first thing you learn is to be strong. I persevered even though it was difficult. With the solid background we had at UA Little Rock, you can compete with anybody anywhere.”
Okoli also has another milestone to celebrate this spring. In addition to completing his education at UA Little Rock, he also became a U.S. citizen March 17. His family was there to help him celebrate, which now includes a daughter who was born in Arkansas in 2019.
“My full name, Chikaodinaka and abbreviated as Chika, means in God’s hands, and I trust God,” Okoli said. “I’ve aspired to live here for the rest of my life. That is why I applied for citizenship. Having citizenship status is breathtaking. That is how I understood that I’m meant to be here with my family for the rest of my life.”
Another UA Little Rock graduate, Christen Alsup, 36, of Benton, has fulfilled her dream of completing her college education and her longtime goal of becoming a teacher. She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education 19 years after first starting college.
“Besides giving birth to my kids, this is one of the proudest moments of my life,” Alsup said.
A career as an educator and going to college are two things that weren’t always on Alsup’s radar. After a short stint at UA-Pulaski Technical College, Alsup joined the workforce and eventually got married. Her life transitioned from working at a marketing and advertising firm to becoming a military wife and stay-at-home mom.
When her son, Hayden, turned five, she decided to give college another shot. While Alsup first chose to pursue a certificate in medical coding, she quickly changed her major to elementary education after finding a passion for teaching while working as a substitute teacher. In April, Alsup joined dozens of graduating teachers across the state and signed a certificate of commitment to teach in Arkansas during the Arkansas Department of Education’s annual Educator Commitment Signing Day.
After graduation, Alsup is hoping to teach in the Benton or Bryant school districts, where she completed her student teaching. She is reminded of a piece of advice she received from Tammy Reitenger, who was the former principal at her son’s school, Hurricane Creek Elementary School, in Bryant.
“She said that I would be a fantastic teacher,” Alsup said. “She told me, ‘The way you love these kids is something that can’t be taught.’ It was that piece of advice that helped me decide to become an education major. The educators in the Benton and Bryant school districts have been so encouraging along the way that it’s more confirmation that I am doing what I’m meant to do.”
UA Little Rock graduate Cassandra Dean, a mother of six, is making her mark by earning her fourth degree from the university and inspiring her children to see the value of higher education. She first graduated from UA Little Rock in 2016 with an associate degree in general studies, an associate degree in law enforcement, and a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
A native of Little Rock, Dean moved with her children to Indianapolis, Indiana, in 2017 to be closer to family and to start a new career. Now a property manager for a senior community, Dean decided to earn a second bachelor’s degree in sociology to help with her work with seniors.
Dean’s return to college also created an interesting family dynamic. She started her sociology degree during the pandemic in 2020, when all six of her children were also taking online classes at home. She thanked her oldest child, Rose, now 19 and a college student herself, for being “my biggest support system while helping me to help her siblings.”
“I have a daughter in college now, so it’s time to be done, but I am excited for my children to see me graduate,” Dean said. “My children are my biggest motivation to pursue my education. I would tell new college students to remember your purpose for going to college. That is what got me through, remembering my children. If I can do it with six children, I think anybody can.”
1. UA Little Rock held its Spring 2022 Commencement ceremonies on Saturday (May 14) at the Jack Stephens Center.
2. Tripti Shukla, a double major in chemistry and biology from Little Rock, has been named the winner of the 2022 Edward L. Whitbeck Memorial Award - the highest graduating student award at UA Little Rock.
3. Chika Okoli, a native of Nigeria who became a U.S. citizen in March, graduated with his bachelor’s degree in nursing after coming to the country to begin a new life with his family in 2016.
4. Cassandra Dean (left), a mother of six, graduated with her bachelor’s degree in sociology, marking the fourth degree she’s earned from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
5. UA Little Rock students and their families (below) gathered at the Jack Stephens Center to celebrate the last year's undergraduate's commencement exercise, which included an in-person and virtual ceremony due to the pandemic.
6. Christen Alsup (left), of Benton, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She discovered a passion for teaching after becoming a substitute teacher to spend more time with her son.