Commencement Honors Top Grads, Professors

The class of 2014 tosses its mortarboards to the sky

The class of 2014 tosses its mortarboards to the sky

Westmont honored top graduates and professors during a warm, sunny Commencement ceremony May 3 on Carr Field. A total of 367 students earned degrees this year, the largest graduating class in Westmont history.

Pastor Rick Warren, founder of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of the book, “The Purpose-Driven Life,” offered the Commencement Address. Westmont bestowed an honorary doctorate on Warren, who told President Gayle D. Beebe that he had wanted to attend Westmont but couldn’t afford it.

Warren encouraged students, “Learn to let God love you and to love him back. God created you to love you and will never love you any less. If you learn to love God a little bit more each day and know him a little bit better, your day has not been wasted.”

He said God would ask each person two important questions: “What did you do with my son, Jesus Christ? That’s the salvation question. What did you do with what I gave you? That’s the stewardship question.”

Rev. Rick Warren

Rev. Rick Warren

Warren encouraged the graduates to lay down three things before God: their identity, their influence and their income. If they yield these things to God, he will make them come alive and accomplish great things. “Whatever you give to God, he will give more of it back to you.”

Beebe gave the Westmont medal to long-time Montecito neighbor Annette Simmons and her late husband, Harold, who died Dec. 28, 2013. “Thank you Gayle and thank you Westmont,” Annette said. “My husband would be so pleased. He loved Westmont.”

After days of record-setting heat, the temperature cooled slightly for Commencement, but the nearly 5,000 people sitting in the sunshine on Carr Field hardly noticed the change, seeking comfort with hats, fans and cool drinks.

Biology major Kiera Kauffman and engineering physics major Luke Patterson both earned the Faculty Scholarship Award, achieving the highest cumulative grade point average (4.0 GPA) during their entire Westmont program.

“I appreciate all the people at Westmont, especially my great professors and friends,” Kauffman says. “The academics are so good, and I learned so much. I really enjoyed doing research with biology professor Amanda Sparkman during the summer and the academic year.”

Kauffman was one of 50 students who presented posters at the 18th annual Westmont College Student Research Symposium in April. She studied the transmission of blood parasites from female garter snakes to their offspring and is working on co-authoring a paper with professor Sparkman. She is looking for an internship and will take a year off before applying to graduate school to study ecology.

“The past few years have been a huge blessing,” Patterson says. “I wasn’t going to attend Westmont, but I felt like God called me here. I’m grateful for my professors who have been so supportive. I learned to love well at Westmont. The people in my life taught me so much about community. I didn’t realize how much college can change your life. Westmont changed my life in ways I will always be grateful for.”

President Gayle Beebe gives the Westmont Medal to Annette Simmons with Amy Simmons nearby

President Gayle Beebe gives the Westmont Medal to Annette Simmons with Amy Simmons nearby.

Patterson will begin graduate school at UC Santa Barbara in September, where he will earn a doctorate in mechanical engineering. This summer he will work as an intern for True Vision Systems, a medical device company in Goleta.

Alison Hensley and C.J. Miller earned the Dean’s Award, which recognizes outstanding scholar-athletes.

“It’s a blessing I’ve been able to be a student-athlete at a Christian college, where all the things I love can come together and I can glorify God,” Hensley says. “Being a part of this wonderful community has shaped me into who I am today.”

Alison has been accepted into a program at UC Irvine, where she’ll earn a master’s degree in education and a teaching credential. She has deferred her admission for a year so she can travel in Spanish-speaking countries in Central and South America.

“Westmont is the best place ever,” Miller says. “I’ve been blessed to be here. Basketball is what got me here, and I thank my coaches for that. My teammates will be some of my best friends for a long time.”

Miller joked that if he knew he was going to win an award, he would have worn pants instead of shorts. He’d like to play basketball professionally in Europe and will pursue that. He completed the physical therapy track in the kinesiology major and is also interested in becoming a physical therapist or perhaps a coach.

Paige Harris earned the Dave Dolan Award, given to a graduate whose campus leadership has made significant contributions in our awareness and response to the social and spiritual needs of the community, the nation and the world.

Student Award Winners: Matthew Bennett, Myvy Ngo, Alison Hensley, C.J. Miller and Paige Harris

Student Award Winners: Matthew Bennett, Myvy Ngo, Alison Hensley, C.J. Miller and Paige Harris

For three years, Harris was involved in Urban Initiative, connecting students to the needs of the less fortunate in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Francisco. “As communications director, she helped students respectfully and courageously encounter different cultures and step outside of their comfort zones,” says Tim Wilson, interim vice president for student life and dean of students. “Paige’s capacity to serve and the effectiveness of her leadership resulted in being recognized as a David K. Winter Servant Leader.”

Harris graduates with a 3.72 GPA as a liberal studies major who also earned a teaching credential.

Myvy Ngo (3.87 GPA) and Matthew Bennett (3.61 GPA) earned the Kenneth Monroe Award, achieving superior academic achievement and excelling as leaders.

“I’m thankful for all the people I’ve met, my professors, friends, staff members and fellow RAs (resident assistants),” Ngo says. “When I came to Westmont, I expected to focus on academics, but the people at Westmont have been the best part of my experience. They have helped, supported and challenged me.”

She will do research in exercise physiology with the kinesiology department at the University of Bath this summer. She completed the pre-med track of the kinesiology major and will take a gap year to study for the MCAT and apply to medical school.

“I’m thankful for a community of friends who really encourage you and challenge you to grow well,” Bennett says. “Westmont is a place where you can learn many different things, and you can be surprised by who you learn them from: students, professors, staff and custodians. You can learn from anyone in the community because Westmont fosters a community of learning.”

Matthew will take a Mayterm class at Westmont on C.S. Lewis and travel to Nepal with an Emmaus Road summer service project. He will take a year off and is considering earning a graduate degree in theology.

For the first time during Commencement, Provost Mark Sargent recognized the grant of emeritus status to Stephan Cook, who retired last spring after 32 years in the English department, specializing in American literature and initiating the study of film at Westmont.

Faculty Award Winners: Kristi Lazar Cantrell, Richard Pointer and John Blondell

Faculty Award Winners: Kristi Lazar Cantrell, Richard Pointer and John Blondell

Kristi Lazar Cantrell ’00, assistant professor of chemistry, Richard Pointer, professor of history, and John Blondell, professor of theater arts, earned the Bruce and Adaline Bare Outstanding Teacher Awards.

Sargent says after graduating from Westmont, Princeton and the University of Chicago, Cantrell now engages students with her own research about protein structures and peptide synthesis. “Kristi’s ability to honor the legacy of Westmont’s chemistry program and to perceive new possibilities for her students has already distinguished her young career,” he says.

Pointer is admired by history majors and cherished by scores of Westmont students who have studied with him during one of many Europe Semesters. Sargent read a comment from a colleague about Dr. Pointer: “He loves students as a historian, wanting them to love his subject. He loves them as a pastor, caring for them in every aspect of their lives. And he loves them as a Christian, desiring that they become substantial people who will bless the world.”

Blondell’s innovative direction of “Pirates of Penzance” earned him one of only two distinguished awards granted to directors of college musicals by the Kennedy Center. “Whether coaching students as they develop their own scripts, or helping them see new possibilities for interpreting the classics, Dr. Blondell has inspired ingenuity, confidence and joy among his theater performers,” Sargent says.

Helen Rhee, winner of the Faculty Research Award

Helen Rhee, winner of the Faculty Research Award

Helen Rhee, associate professor of religious studies, won the Faculty Research Award for her work on Christian thought in the first centuries and “Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich,” her book about early Christian thought concerning wealth, poverty and charity. Sargent read a comment from Wendy Mayer of the Centre for Early Christian Studies. “(She) claims that Dr. Rhee’s book ‘sweeps beyond a mere historical study into the realms of inspiration,’ especially as it intimates how Christians can live with integrity and selflessness in a culture of affluence and consumerism.”

Sargent also acknowledged 11 members of the graduating class who were not able to attend since they qualified to play in the Golden State Athletic Conference baseball championship game and won after a doubleheader in San Diego.

In his charge to the graduates, Beebe described the class of 2014 as one of the brightest ever, citing the record 50 students who participated in the annual research symposium this spring as one indication of their academic achievements. “I think of you with so much joy and appreciation,” he said. “We want you to learn, grow, understand life and follow Jesus Christ. I encourage you to persevere no matter what life brings.”

Here is a slide show of Baccalaureate and Commencement by Westmont photographer Brad Elliott