KOKOMO, Ind. — Just keep swimming.
When facing challenges as she completed her nursing degree at Indiana University Kokomo, those were the words Debora Zehner used to encourage herself, to keep moving forward towards her goal.
Tuesday (May 8) those words — along with Dory, the blue fish who famously said them in Finding Nemo — adorned her mortarboard, as she was among IU Kokomo’s largest-ever graduating class.
“I’m very proud of myself for finally getting there,” said the Jonesboro resident, adding that she’s already accepted a job as a nurse at Marion General Hospital. “It’s taken me a long time to get there.”
In a sea of black caps and gowns at the Commencement ceremony, graduates like Zehner created artwork, to stand out from the crowd, make a statement, or share one last sweet (or snarky) sentiment, as they graduated. The sentiments included thank yous to parents, scripture, movie quotes, and pictures.
Sarah Graves wiped tears from her eyes as she talked about the inspiration not only for the multicolored puzzle piece rhinestone heart on her board, but also for her return to college — her three-year-old son, Drew, who is autistic.
“I never thought I would go back to school, and then I became a single mom to a special needs little man,” she said, “I thought, ‘I need to come back, to do better for him,’ and he was my inspiration to come back and finish.”
The Peru resident spent two hours gluing individual strips of rhinestones on the board to form the heart made from puzzles pieces, a symbol for autism, and used stickers to write “Until all the pieces fit…This is for you, Drew,” around the edges.
“It means everything to me to wear this today,” she said. “Everything I do is for that little man.”
Drew was too young to sit through the ceremony, but she looked forward to seeing him for family pictures at the reception on campus later.
Johnna Markham and Jessa Coffman spent two days working on their mortarboards together. Markham gave a nod to her psychology major and criminal justice minor on hers, with a picture of a brain, and the words “Is it a crime to be so psyched?” on it.
Coffman honored family members with several elements, including the quote, “If you don’t love life, you’re doing it wrong,” from a friend who passed away, and rose for her daughter and her grandmother.
It was important for both of them to thank and honor their loved ones, they said. Markham is the first in her family to graduate from college.
“I’m the first with a four-year degree, and I’m excited,” Coffman said.
Dejianna Butler felt “proud and good” about her mortarboard, which celebrates her culture. It included a painting of an African American woman holding a globe in one hand, and a stack of books in the other, and the words “Black Girl Magic.”
“It’s us holding the world in our hands, because it’s part of women running the world, in a male-dominated society,” the Evansville resident said. “The books are for education, because we are truly educated.”
Nursing graduate Alexander Luzadder, from Flora, has known what would adorn his mortarboard since he first enrolled.
He featured an Olympic-style gold medal in the center, surrounded by the words “I went the distance,” on the edges.
“Since I was a kid, I really loved the Disney movie Hercules, and that’s my favorite quote from the movie,” he said. “This is the culmination of four years of hard work.”
He was happy to be able to wear his decorated board, noting it is a symbol of students’ personal growth in college.
“It allows for the freedom of expression you really develop while you’re in college,” he said. “This puts a cap on it, so to speak.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.