Alumni Say They Identified and Pursued Their Dreams at GPC
by Rebecca Rakoczy
Amy Wang is a quiet student who discovered her true voice through the written word. Tech savvy Jean Bastia found his calling, not on a computer keyboard, but by a patient’s bedside. Lisa Burianek gathered the courage to pursue her goal of veterinary school, and Larry Graves learned that it was never too late to follow the career of his dreams. These students, like many others at Georgia Perimeter College, learned to trust themselves and follow their passion. They credit the support and encouragement they received from GPC’s instructors and staff.
A song to aid his kinsmen
Jean Bastia’s lilting accent is a calming balm to the patients he sees while working as a charge nurse in two metro Atlanta hospitals. His lingual patois of French, Creole and Cajun is a sound that also has graced the airwaves in Haiti, where his catchy tunes were used as part of a nationwide campaign to eradicate the spread of cholera.
It’s been eight years since Bastia first attended Georgia Perimeter to follow his passion to become a nurse. He continues to inspire those who encountered him at GPC.
When Bastia arrived from Haiti in 2005, he began working with software issues, not medical issues. That’s when Peggy Strevel met him. Strevel was working in GPC’s JagSpot, where students can access computers and other technology and receive technological help. Bastia was hired as a student lab assistant.
“From my first experience with Jean, I knew that he had financial struggles like a lot of foreign students do, but he never complained … he was so prayerful,” says Strevel. “He was always looking out for somebody else, to give them lunch or to help them with gas money or rent. He inspired me.”
Bastia always knew he wanted to help others. That’s why he started at GPC. While living in Haiti, he had helped translate for U.S. doctors and medical groups on medical missions to his country. Then he began thinking about a career as a nurse.
“As I was working with them, I thought, if I had the medical knowledge—it would be more beneficial to all those people if I were a nurse,” he said.
To pursue his nursing dream, Bastia came to Atlanta and Georgia Perimeter College. He first had to pass English as a Second Language classes, and that’s when he met Tim Brotherton. He credits the Clarkston ESL instructor with helping him move toward his dream.
“Even though I spoke English, I didn’t graduate from high school in this country, and I needed to take the class,” he said. “He was very helpful and thorough and took his time with me. He understood I was from a different culture, and he helped me understand different things.”
Brotherton remembers Bastia and the impression the young man made. “I knew he would do well because of the sincere way he engaged with me, the course material and his classmates.
Bastia’s helpful nature came to the forefront in 2009, when tragedy struck Haiti.
“When Haiti experienced the devastation of a tremendous earthquake and thousands of people were at risk for cholera, Jean put some jingles together—to encourage good health practices—that were played on radio and TV in Haiti,” Strevel says. “They were fun and lighthearted but full of healthful, life-altering information. Jean is always thinking about and pursuing ways to help others.”
After getting his nursing prerequisites at GPC, Bastia transferred to Clayton State University, where he earned a bachelor’s in nursing and a bachelor’s in health-care management. He now works as a charge nurse at Wellstar Kennestone and at Cartersville Medical Center and says he has started his own medical training business. He also is on his way to getting his master’s as a nurse practitioner, with hopes of one day becoming a public health educator.
Learning to trust her instincts
It would be a mistake to judge Amy Wang as a timid soul. Just ask her GPC professors.
Wang is slight in stature and was born with cerebral palsy. But she isn’t scared to ask questions, push her abilities and work hard. And she has learned she can succeed.
Wang loves to write and has dreamed of becoming a professional writer. But she didn’t always trust her abilities. That changed, she says, thanks to GPC faculty members such as Nancy Kojima, Dr. Michael Hall and John Siler, who encouraged her to trust her instincts and go beyond what she believed she was capable of.
“When I first had her as a student she was very hesitant; she felt like she was ‘coloring inside the lines,’” says Kojima, who taught Wang two English courses at GPC. “I told her, ‘you just trust yourself; if you really like writing, don’t shy away from it—go for it and have a little confidence.’”
Kojima’s support of Wang has extended beyond the English courses.
“There was a time, when I thought I would never write again,” Wang says, “and it was because I had Professor Kojima as part of my life that my flame of passion and inspiration was reignited. It’s because of that sense of trust that I have with her, that she is an inspiration to me.
“She also said to me once, ‘I can’t wait to read what you write!’ To be able to write and know that my audience will enjoy it had always been part of the dream to become a writer.”
Wang was determined to be better,” Kojima says. “That’s what you’re shooting for as an instructor. You want your students to question and think about ideas.”
Hall, who taught Wang creative writing, shares an admiration for the young woman.
“She was one of those rare students who did more than just try hard; she was one of those students who helped everyone else learn and improve in the class. She excelled in class; she completely listened and applied everything I said.”
Wang says Hall made her stretch her abilities.
“Professor Hall pushed me to write at an even higher and more profound level. He taught me how to paint pictures with my words.”
“He also asked me once what I thought about my writing,” Wang recalls. “I don’t remember what I said but, in the end, Professor Hall said, ‘One day your writing will be known.’ I finally understood then that Professor Hall had always believed in and supported me in my aspiration of pursuing a reliable life out of writing.”
If her writing instructors pushed her to explore her own talent, it was Wang’s criminal justice professor, John Siler, who recognized her keen intelligence to discuss abstract concepts.
“Professor Siler knew that just because I was one of the more quiet students in class, that didn’t mean I didn’t have an interest or care for learning,” she says.
Siler encouraged Wang to join the GPC Honors Society, Phi Theta Kappa—which eventually led her to apply for a scholarship at Agnes Scott College. “He wanted to make sure that I was getting the best GPC experience possible.”
Wang graduated with high honors from GPC in May, and received the PTK Honors Society scholarship to attend Agnes Scott College, where she is focusing on creative writing.
Gaining courage to reach her goal
Lisa Burianek worked part time in a veterinarian’s office during high school and envisioned herself in a career helping animals. As a child, she often brought strays home, much to the chagrin of her parents.
“I drove them crazy,” she says, laughing.
While Burianek loved animals, she was worried that she was not smart enough to become a veterinarian.
“I wasn’t as prepared as I could have been to come to college,” she says. Her lack of confidence, however, soon was transformed by GPC professors and tutors who inspired her to do her best, she says.
Her psychology professor, Dr. Damian Kellam, encouraged her; her math tutors coached her; and her biology professor, Dr. Isle Rickets, challenged her. Each gave Burianek the confidence to move forward with her dream, she says.
“Dr. Kellam’s love of teaching inspired me to pursue my dream,” Burianek says.
Feeling she was weak in math, she spent hours with tutoring instructors at GPC, studying pre-calculus and calculus. “The amazing tutors helped me get through calculus,” she says.
Her last hurdle was biology—a subject that was definitely needed to proceed to veterinary school. Professor Rickets helped her succeed.
“When I saw I could succeed in biology, it helped me not be so afraid to move ahead,” she says. Moving ahead has since taken her to the University of Georgia.
Burianek was motivated, Rickets says. “She is a great student. She is self-motivated and worked hard to get there.”
Burianek, who graduated from GPC in May, was accepted into the agricultural science program at UGA. She is on track for vet school and, then, becoming a veterinarian.
“My goal is to one day set up a no-kill shelter for cats and dogs,” she says.
Never too late to follow a dream
Lawrence Graves waves at every car bearing a Georgia Perimeter College decal.
“Every time I see a sticker, I want to talk to them about GPC,” says Graves. “I want them to know how grateful I am–this is where I got my start. Without GPC, I never would have had a chance to acquire a higher education and to start to imagine, and then realize, my dream of being a history professor.”
Graves received his associate degree from GPC, graduating with honors in 2008. Now In his late 40s, he has his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and is working in a profession he loves, teaching history online at the college. He credits history professor Dr. Paul Hudson for helping him to believe in himself.
Graves knows personally how difficult it is for students to further their education. A lackluster high school student, he graduated with no plans—or funds—for college.
He joined the Army briefly, but “I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a soldier, and so did Uncle Sam,” he says.
“I started doing odd jobs for a temporary agency until one day when I was cutting grass for an insurance company and the human resources director offered me a job,” he says.
Graves worked his way up the ladder, from file clerk to underwriter. But he knew that something was missing. “I kept hitting the ‘parchment ceiling’—I didn’t have a college degree,” he says.
He thought he might want to teach English to students abroad. After doing well in a Spanish course for his work, he enrolled at GPC part time. In 2002, he decided to pursue a degree and by 2004, he started taking college credit courses at GPC.
“When I got an A in algebra, I began to think, ‘hey, maybe something is going on here,’” he says. Graves says he was determined to graduate with straight As.
“I had never gotten close to that in high school—in fact, I was part of those groups who chastised the geeky straight-A students—they weren’t cool,” he admits.
Thanks to GPC’s transfer admissions guarantee program, Graves enrolled in Oglethorpe University’s evening program, graduating summa cum laude with a degree in history. He earned his master’s in 2012 from the American Military University.
Inspired by Hudson, who teaches history at Georgia Perimeter, Graves applied for—and received—an online teaching position at GPC. In addition to teaching, Graves is pursuing his doctorate in history.
The GPC alumnus is thankful for the impact GPC made on his life. “If it weren’t for GPC, I would be stuck in a job that I hate with no hope of real advancement,” he says. “Now I’m a professor on fire.”