This past Saturday, six students at the Crossroads Higher Education Center in Galax earned their masters’ degrees at Averett University. And while earning their MBA’s through a partnership with the Galax institute is a massive accomplishment, those graduating said they couldn’t have done it without their seventh member.
Stephanie Rene Pack Bryant was one of four original students that began the masters’ program through Averett University in 2011 in a ground-breaking partnership with the Crossroads Institute. Dr. Oliver McBride, Executive Director of the Crossroads Institute, said the program came about thanks to citizens like Bryant who wanted to earn their MBA’s but had family, job and other obligations that kept them from traveling to a major university or college.
According to classmate Aaron Blackburn, Bryant found out she had cancer the very day the MBA program started. But she never let that stop her as she was driven to earn her master’s degree before passing on November 23, 2012, continuing her work with Blackburn and classmates David Payne and Norma Quesinberry.
“She decided it was meant for her to go through the MBA program. I don’t think she hesitated at all to continue on, even after finding out she had cancer,” Blackburn said. “And she really fought through everything tremendously. I have never seen anyone with so much perseverance and so much drive.”
Bryant’s drive to beat cancer and earn her MBA was a major motivation in her life, Blackburn said, a legacy that was passed on to that initial team of students in Galax, along with Joanie Newman, Travis Belton and Angela Edwards, who joined the program later and put in extra work to graduate with the others.
“It was such an incredible thing to see somebody so motivated during a time in their life when they are facing death. She passed that along to us and she really drove us forward,” Blackburn said. “You really see firsthand what you should appreciate in life and why you should work hard. She was a humongous motivational factor to us and a close friend.”
And while Bryant unfortunately did not get the chance to walk across the stage at Averett University, she joins her six colleagues in receiving a master’s degree from the Danville university. While in Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C. before she passed, Bryant was bestowed with an Honorary Master’s Degree from Averett.
“It was devastating when she passed away, but at the same time what Averett did for her was amazing. Norma, David and myself actually went to the hospital,” Blackburn said. “The folks from Averett drove all the way from Danville to present her with that at Baptist Hospital. We all gathered around her hotel bed. Stephanie hardly could even get the words out of her mouth, but if you could have just seen her face light up and how much it truly meant to her that she was being honored for what she had done. It’s something I will never forget, and she will definitely be with me for as long as I live, as well as the experience I have had with Averett. I can’t say enough good things about Averett University.”
Newman said earning a Master’s Degree took much time and dedication. There were often times when things seemed too tough, but it was always Bryant that kept the class going.
“There were a lot of times where we thought it was too tough and we wanted to quit, but just knowing what she went through and staying in the class, that was amazing,” Newman said. “You thought about it and said, ‘Things aren’t so bad after all. If she can stay in this program, so can I.’”
A New World of Opportunity
McBride said before the opening of the Crossroads Higher Education Center, the graduating Averett students started in a small room in the main facility at the Crossroads Institute, waiting patiently for the new center to be opened. He said their graduation speaks volumes about what can be accomplished when people set their mind to achieve something.
“These are people who came to us and said, ‘We would love to be able to earn a Master’s in Business Administration, but we are working, we have family obligations, we have jobs. We can’t leave the area to do it. Is there anything that can be done to bring that here?’ And we were able to work through the New College Institute to get the Averett University program,” McBride said. “These folks have committed themselves to completing it and they have been very, very successful. We just want people to know about them and use them as a way to tell people about the opportunities that are available here in higher education.”
Newman said she was lucky to find out about the program. Along with Edwards and Belton, the trio began taking the program after the initial group had already taken two classes. Since that time, they have been driven to catch up and graduate at the same time as their colleagues.
“It’s one of those things that was just too good to be true. It was such a great opportunity in Galax, I couldn’t pass it up,” said Newman, who had earned her bachelor’s degree a couple of years ago through Bluefield College. “I just thought, ‘This is too good to be true. It’s made for somebody who has to work, has kids, has a lot of obligations,’ and it’s here in our backyard.”
Newman said her immediate goal is to use what she has learned through the program to help her business, Moog Components Group in Galax. Later on, she hopes to be able to teach.
“It’s been tough, but it’s been a wonderful opportunity for us,” she said.
Blackburn said he couldn’t have asked for a more convenient situation to earn his MBA that what he was provided at the Higher Education Center. He never dreamed he would be able to get his master’s degree in Galax. He hopes his class will pave the way for many more in the future.
“Thinking about it, it’s almost like you are part of a new wave of the future getting ready to happen. It’s kind of cool to be at the beginning of this thing that could develop into something influential to our community. It just continues to happen here in Galax and they continue to offer these kinds of courses,” he said. “It continues to improve our community and gives people opportunities they didn’t think they had before.”
Ironically, Blackburn said he never intended to earn a master’s degree after earning his bachelor’s from Virginia Tech. But one day Dr. McBride came into Blackburn’s Farm Service Agency Office when he just happened to mention the program.
“I hadn’t given it a lot of thought, but when he talked about it I thought, ‘How am I ever going to get a better opportunity than this?’ And I worked for the government too and I felt like at the time, when the budget was becoming an issue, maybe this was God’s way of telling me I needed to do this,” Blackburn said.
Looking back on it, he never knew how challenging the program would be. He didn’t know he would be committing himself to an extra 10-15 hours of work per week. But with Bryant and fellow classmates working as a team, Blackburn said he truly learned the value of hard work.
“Nothing good comes but from hard work, and I learned that from this program. You really feel true pride when you are presented with something like this,” Blackburn said. “Through this whole thing, I truly learned the value of working with people, working with my teammates, working through issues, not only with assignments, but personal issues. I was a part of a team, and it’s been amazing to see and to experience how as a group we pulled together and worked through that situation.”
Blackburn also wants to make sure the community is aware that Crossroads and its Higher Education Center offers opportunities for people of all ages. There are no age limits or requirements. He hopes more people will follow the lead of his class to better themselves.
“This is open for everybody. The people there, their ambition was to get a better job, put something on their resume they didn’t have there before,” he said. “It wasn’t uncommon to see people in their 50s and even approaching retirement age there in class getting their MBA. I hope more and more people realize the opportunities they have here. There is no excuse not to continue. You have levels of education that were previously unavailable to a lot of people that are now available in Galax. It’s here and I think that is truly an amazing thing.”