MAY 5, 2023

Resilience, empowerment and community drives SJR State grads

Payton Alexander

Payton Alexander

Maria Caro

Maria Caro

Christian Domond

Christian Domond

Valeria Morales

Valeria Morales

Sydney Hayes

Sydney Hayes

When Payton Alexander enrolled in the early college program at St. Johns River State College as a high school freshman, her goal was to get a jump start on the college process. Four years later, the Interlachen High School senior has gained more than her Associate in Arts degree.

“There are several things that I learned about myself… the discovery of my perseverance and self-motivation to study hard and succeed in all of my classes. Even for classes I wasn’t particularly interested in, I still made it a priority,” Alexander said. “I am glad that I got the opportunity to take challenging classes and discover these traits about myself before I went into a bachelor’s program.”

This summer, Alexander transfers to the University of Florida as an 18-year-old college junior, where she will major in business with a specialization in either pre-health or psychology.

Alexander said she has always had an interest in healthcare, especially obstetrics, gynecology and psychology. “No matter what I do, I want to help and be an advocate for women,” Alexander said. “As a woman myself, I feel that it is my duty to serve and empower other women. I have a strong passion for women's rights and health, and I want to use my education to help as many women as I possibly can.”

“I have also realized the importance and benefit of understanding business and having a business degree,” Alexander continued. “Especially if I am to open my own practice one day.”

Alexander was among the 100+ dual enrollment and early college program graduates participating in the 2023 spring commencement on May 5. In total, 300 of the 550+ graduates participated in the ceremony held on the College’s Orange Park Campus.

Also among the graduates was Maria Caro, 27. The mother of two received her Associate in Science degree in Radiologic Technology and will begin her career with HCA Florida Putnam Hospital as a PRN radiologic technologist. Caro said that earning her degree has given her more than a fulfilling career, it has given her the newfound confidence to deliver compassionate patient care.

Although Caro admits being intimidated by the program at first, she advises to never let fear stop anyone from being successful. “I was very shy and quiet in the beginning, but I pushed myself to raise my hand and take opportunities when presented. I have experienced so many different situations that have pushed me out of my comfort zone to be more confident,” Caro said. “I now walk with confidence and talk with assertiveness, thanks to my experience in this program.”

Also graduating was Christian-Michel Domond, who at the age of 19, has experienced what most of us only read in the headlines. Although he was born in the United States, Domond spent his formative years in Haiti, excelling in a rigorous education at a French/Haitian institution - all while witnessing political unrest, gang violence, the kidnapping of family members, and the devastating earthquake of 2010.

It was after the death of his father and the loss of his mother’s job at the U.S. Embassy, that Domond made the difficult decision to leave the country he loved, move forward with his mom and four siblings, and adapt to a new culture.

“Haiti was my home, but all the traumas that I have experienced were holding me back emotionally. I wanted to start somewhere fresh, where nobody knew me or my story, and that is exactly what I got when I enrolled at SJR State,” Domond said. “I was able to reinvent myself.”

Domond found a new sense of community at SJR State’s St. Augustine Campus, making friends, attending class full time while working two jobs. “I wasn’t sure if I would adapt well and if I would connect with people; however, I could not have been more wrong,” Domond said. “Since my first semester, all my teachers were amazing. They were very supportive, encouraging, understanding and they always worked with me. I am very shy and I usually try to not have the attention on me. However, I always felt seen and included in class.”

While Domond has experienced more trauma than most 19-year-olds should have to experience, he said he has learned that difficulties are made to be overcome.

“I learned one valuable life lesson. I learned that life will always have its up and downs. That’s just life. I need to adapt to the changes in my life to move forward, because otherwise, I will stay stuck, unable to move on and be happy,” Domond said. “I did not want my past to hold me back and slow me down. I needed to move forward and onward.”

Domond plans to continue his education in biochemistry and ultimately become a cardiothoracic surgeon. Among the colleges he has applied include Cornell University, New York University and the University of Florida.

His reasons to enter the medical field are twofold: observing his uncle’s practice in Haiti and the many people in need; and his father’s death due to COVID-19 heart complications. “This specialty will be my way to remember and honor his memory through my practice of medicine,” he said.

A portion of the ceremony was dedicated to the Paul “Dee” Causey President’s Award. Each year, the award honors the memory of an SJR State alumnus whom Pickens described as not only his mentor, but a fearless athlete, dedicated family man and successful businessman. “Dee Causey loved the underdog, and he loved nothing more than helping the underdog succeed,” Pickens said.

Pickens presented the award to Valeria Escalera-Morales, 23, who battled stage 4 esophageal cancer while completing her Associate in Science in Nursing degree.

“Before I began the program, I had just been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer,” Morales said. “I was at a crossroads whether it was time for me to start the program then or wait. I’m very glad I stayed. My professors were nothing but attentive and responsive.”

Through it all, Morales also found faith and love, converting to Catholicism in 2022 and getting married in 2023.

Sydney Hayes, an early college program student from Middleburg High School, was presented with the Valedictorian Award. The award is given based on grade point average and difficulty of courses. Hayes plans to attend the University of Central Florida and major in electrical engineering.

Green Cove Springs real estate broker and owner of Exit Magnolia Point Realty Bert Van Royal was the commencement speaker.

Photos from the ceremony can be found on the SJR State’s flickr page at:

Bert Van Royal

Bert Van Royal, Green Cove Springs real estate broker and owner of Exit Magnolia Point Realty, was the commencement speaker.




Michelle Sjogren
Assistant Vice President for Institutional Advancement and Strategic Communications
(904) 276-6814

Susan Kessler
Director of Public Relations and Marketing
(386) 312-4021