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Family matters: WVU Commencement to bring together graduates and their supporters in celebration

A WVU grad hugs her father wearing a decorated mortar board that says: To my village, thank you.

Thousands of West Virginia University graduates will celebrate Commencement May 10-12 and many of their biggest supporters — both biological and chosen family members and friends — will be in the audience cheering for them. (WVU Photo/Davidson Chan)

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Thousands of West Virginia University graduates will mark Commencement Weekend May 10-12 with many of the people who have supported them over the years as they made their way to the graduation stage.

Lisa Hanselman, director of the Mountaineer Parents Club, said families — biological and chosen — are a huge part of a student’s college experience and success.

“Most families make big sacrifices to send their student to college so Commencement is a shared experience,” Hanselman said. “Everyone played a role in this achievement and everyone wants to celebrate. We see a lot of grandparents, family friends and other relatives attend the ceremonies, happily watching their special student walk across the stage. The smiles during and after the ceremonies make all the efforts and support worth it.”

A true lifesaver
U.S. Air Force Veteran Christopher Lindsey from Morgantown wouldn’t be alive, much less preparing to accept his Healthcare MBA from the WVU John Chambers College of Business and Economics on May 11, if it weren’t for his wife, Kari.

On a chilly October evening in 2023, the former active duty critical care nurse collapsed at home. Kari Lindsey, a registered nurse herself, performed CPR on her husband, who was in full cardiac arrest for eight minutes until EMS arrived. He was defibrillated twice in the ambulance, he said, and the situation was dicey until a medical team at J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital finally stabilized him. 

Weeks of testing followed and a cause still is not clear. But, outfitted with a new pacemaker, Lindsey continued marching toward his goals, combining his background as a nurse and his current role as director of emergency services at the same hospital that saved his life, with more education to create an even brighter future in health care.

“It’s one thing for Veterans, we know what we’re getting into when we sign up for active duty — the multiple moves, weekends and months away and all that comes with military life,” he said.

“We sign the papers. Our family members don’t. They do everything they do just for us, including so much sacrifice and uncertainty. Without Kari, in more ways than one, I probably wouldn’t have gone back to school to pursue this degree, and I wouldn’t be here today. It’s because of her that I am alive, able to continue growing professionally and following my dreams.”

Class connection
Juan Rincon and his daughter Maria Rincon-Perez have been each other’s greatest support as educational pursuits brought them both thousands of miles from their home in Colombia. 

Maria was born in Morgantown while Juan earned his master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the WVU Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources. After graduation, the family returned to Colombia where Juan taught at the university level. When the opportunity came for him to pursue his doctorate at WVU, he and Maria embarked on the journey together. 

“She has really been my partner through a lot of stuff and I am blessed for that,” Juan Rincon said.

Maria, while working towards her own degree in chemical engineering, found solace in knowing her father was just an office visit away, offering guidance and support when needed. “We didn’t plan for this to happen, but it’s nice,” Maria Rincon-Perez said. “It’s been nice knowing that someone like my dad is around.”

Juan Rincon will continue his supportive role when he watches Maria walk across the Commencement stage during the Statler College ceremony on May 12.

Homegrown support
Like the Rincons, a growing collection of WVU degrees is part of the strong bond shared by the Johnson family of Princeton.

Both Sarah and David Johnson are proud alumni. Their eldest daughter, Rachel, will graduate on May 11 with her Master of Science in Journalism degree from the WVU Reed College of Media a day after her sister, Rebecca, will receive her bachelor’s degree in communication sciences and disorders from the WVU School of Medicine.

Through scholarships and on-campus jobs, the sisters have paved their way to success.

“We have a unique experience,” Sarah Johnson said. “When they were in high school, we told them their job was to get scholarships. And they did just that. They’ve worked incredibly hard and it’s paid off for them.” 

Still, the Johnsons admit there were challenges, and providing emotional support for their daughters from many miles away was tough at times.

“They’re both really smart but they have had a lot of stress working on their degrees. We’ve tried not to put a lot of pressure on them and just tell them to try their very best,” Sarah Johnson said.

Teaching their daughters the importance of starting strong was top of mind for the couple.

“Going to class and taking good notes is so important,” Dave Johnson said. “It must have sunk in because they got more As in their first semesters than I got in my whole time at WVU. They’ve learned that they can have a good time, too, but it’s important to find balance.”

After graduation, Rachel Johnson will work as a marketing coordinator for the Visit Mountaineer Country Convention and Visitors Bureau as Rebecca begins a master’s degree program in speech pathology.

There’s still one daughter left at home, Leah, currently a sophomore in high school, and a secret hope by her parents that she too will find her way to Morgantown.

Commencement redo
Yet another story of pride and familial support comes out of the Demniak family from Carmichaels, Pennsylvania. Cindy Lou and Dave Demniak poured themselves into raising a tight-knit family — two daughters and one son. Their baby boy, Hayden Demniak, completed his agribusiness management degree at the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design in May 2023. 

However, Commencement ceremonies conflicted with the Pennsylvania Youth Livestock Expo and Hayden’s last chance to show the prized lambs he’d been caring for during the past 10 months. There was also the potential of winning a shiny red diesel truck prize.

Cindy Lou stressed how important it was to cross the Commencement stage after years of parental guidance, gentle nudging and encouragement to keep going.

“There were some very challenging times,” she said of her son’s college years. “There were times when he felt so frustrated and tempted to give up. And while he was in school, he lost a very close friend and dealt with that tremendous grief. We just kept supporting him, making sure he knew we were always there and encouraging him to keep moving forward.”

Hayden skipped Commencement and attended the livestock show, much to his mother’s dismay. But it was the right choice, he said. His lambs made it to the finals and Hayden drove away in that shiny red truck. It was a prize he could have never afforded on his own, his parents said, and one that would serve him well, both on the family farm and in his career as a regional territory sales manager for Tarter Farm and Ranch Equipment.

He said the show was a good day even though his lambs ultimately came up short of winning the overall award. “It felt like the sacrifices I made along the way to remain committed to my passion and our livelihood were rewarded by some luck or fate,” he added.

University administrators heard about Hayden Demniak’s story. Earlier this year, the family met with WVU President Gordon Gee who officially invited Hayden to walk for the Davis College ceremony on May 11 and to have the graduation experience his mother hoped for.

“It’s an overwhelming feeling and we’re so very proud,” Cindy Lou Demniak said. “It represents years of dedication, hard work and the culmination of his academic journey that was marked by both triumph and adversity. I’m ecstatic that WVU has made this happen for us and for my son. It will be a great and emotional day.”

Find more information about WVU Commencement Weekend.

Read about this year’s honorary degree recipients and Commencement speakers.



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