By Bob Jackson
Sunday’s commencement ceremonies at Youngstown State University marked a series of firsts.
Kelly L. Colwell didn’t realize until Sunday afternoon just what a pioneer he was about to become.
He knew he was going to be the first person to graduate from Youngstown State University’s new online master’s degree program in respiratory care. What he didn’t know was that he actually would become the first person in Ohio to accomplish the feat.
“That’s pretty exciting,” the 52-year-old Boardman man said. “I’m really proud of that. We were just forward thinking and trying to get YSU’s program up and running, not really realizing it was going to set the stage for the rest of the state.”
Colwell was among more than 600 students who received degrees in YSU’s Beeghly Center.
The featured speaker for the ceremony was renowned journalist Simeon Booker Jr., whose career spanned more than a half-century and was credited with helping to expose civil-rights injustices. Born in Baltimore, Booker was reared in Youngstown before embarking on his award-winning career in journalism, from which he retired in 2007.
“It may seem surprising that in all of my 95 years, this is the first college commencement in which I have ever participated,” he said, noting that he skipped out on his own graduation from Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va., in 1942 so he could pack a suitcase and get out of town to begin his career as a reporter.
Colwell, a married father of four, is a native of New Bethlehem, Pa., and began his collegiate studies at Thiel College in Greenville, Pa., eventually moving to YSU, where he earned a Bachelor of Applied Science degree with a major in respiratory care in 1993. He’s since worked more than 29 years as a respiratory therapist.
He worked 23 years at Tod Children’s Hospital in Youngstown as a staff neonatal/pediatric respiratory therapist, working with respiratory care students from YSU and other respiratory programs. He received a distinguished teaching award and adjunct of the year award while at Tod’s.
He currently works for Akron Children’s Hospital, Boardman Campus, where he coordinates he pulmonary diagnostic and stress-testing lab, along with the outpatient asthma and education clinic for a group of pediatric pulmonologists and allergists.
Colwell said he decided to take his education to the next level to help “master his profession,” and because he wants to eventually pursue a doctorate degree and remain in some sort of collegiate teaching capacity.
“I chose YSU due to the specialized curriculum the program has to offer, the exceptional leadership and focus of the respiratory care faculty, the flexibility of the online classes, and affordability of YSU,” he said.
According to information provided by YSU, the master’s program in respiratory care is one of seven full online degrees offered at the university.
“We’re the first [master’s] program in respiratory care in the state of Ohio, and one of only five in the country,” said retired Dr. Lou Harris, former head of the respiratory care department. Although the department is now headed by Dr. Mary Yacavone, Harris said he “wrote the whole program” and got it off the ground.
Booker said his father wanted him to go into either teaching or the ministry, which at the time were thought to be acceptable careers for black men with college educations. When Booker declined, his father asked that he at least write under a pen name so that nothing he wrote would be associated with his father.
Booker spoke of covering the trial of two men accused of killing Emmett Till in 1955. Till, a 14-year-old black boy from Chicago who was visiting relatives in Mississippi, was murdered for suppposedly flirting with a white woman. The two men accused of killing him were acquitted, and Booker said the trial was “bizarre.”
“Nothing I’d ever experienced prepared me for my first foray into the Deep South in 1955,” he said. “I vowed to use my best weapon [journalism] to expose the crime that the white press ignored. I didn’t want to run and hide; I wanted to use every skill I had to make a better world.”
Also graduating Sunday was 24-year-old Brittany Baum of Poland, who said she wouldn’t have long to savor her accomplishment. She was packing up and leaving Sunday night for Columbus, where she was to begin working today as a patient revenue cycle specialist at Ohio State Medical Center.
“I’m not sure I really even believe it’s happening yet,” Baum said of the end of her five-year college career. She received a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “I think it’s going to take a while to set in.”
She counted herself lucky to already have a job lined up, although she ultimately wants to return to school for a graduate degree and eventually end up practicing clinical counseling.
“Being involved — that’s what I want,” the smiling grad said. “I want to change lives on a personal level, not by paperwork.”
Baum stood out among the graduates because she had brightly adorned the top of her mortarboard with the words, “Oh the places you’ll go,” which is the title of a popular Dr. Seuss book and also has become a popular theme for graduation speeches.
Baum said she was given the book as a gift upon her graduation from Poland Seminary High School, and its impact has stayed with her so much that she even has the words and book cover as a “sleeve” tattoo on her upper left arm.
She said her father, Wayne Baum, an operating engineer with Lindy Paving in Pennsylvania, is her role model because he “always taught me to do my best and be the best I can be.”