On the road to his degree, Paul Ferrara had to overcome obstacles most university students can’t imagine.
The 24 year old battled thyroid cancer twice as he worked towards his Concurrent Bachelor of Education degree.
His fellow graduates celebrated his accomplishments in the face of adversity Wednesday clapping and cheering as he received the Board of Trustees Spirit of Brock award.
Ferrara said the Brock community pulled together to support him during both his bouts with cancer, in 2010 and 2013.
His first diagnosis came shortly before he was to start at Brock. He didn’t let it hold him back.
“Three weeks prior to starting the program at Brock University, I had a total thyroidectomy and radical neck dissection due to an advanced case of thyroid cancer,” Ferrara said.
During his first year, he took on a reduced course load so he could go to intensive physical therapy and radiation.
Cancer once again touched Ferrara’s life during his third year and he had to undergo another surgery, radiation and voice therapy.
Between treatments and clinical visits, Ferrara continued to focus on his studies and community outreach.
“I felt a lot of stress due to my medical situation, but I wanted to continue moving forward throughout my treatments,” he said. “I knew that moving forward and doing something that I loved would help me focus on my goals.”
Ferrara reached one of his goals Wednesday, when he graduated cancer free and with a Dean’s medal.
He has always wanted to work with children and since his cancer fight, he’s learned he wants to help students with special needs.
“I draw on my own experiences to connect with students who are struggling in the school system,” he said. “My strengths come from my past experiences and I connect with students on a personal level.”
Ferrara is an avid volunteer and is especially proud of his work with the Brock Learning Lab as a math and reading tutor.
The Spirit of Brock award is given to students who exemplify leadership, innovation, courage, inspiration and community involvement.
The graduate student presented with the Spirit of Brock award in the Faculty of Education was Katlynne Smith who spent her seven years at Brock as a mentor and leader.
She volunteered as a special needs activity partner and worked with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder in summer programming.
As a member of the faculty’s Reading Clinic, Smith started a barbecue event to raise money for students wishing to attend tutoring but who were unable to afford it.
She received SSHRC and faculty research grants for her work on inclusive practices for students with autism.
The convocation speaker for the Faculty of Education was Nicola Simmons, who was the recipient of the faculty’s Excellence in Teaching award.
Simmons, Assistant Professor in the Department of Graduate and Undergraduate Studies in Education, told the students getting a degree is much like writing an academic paper in that they now get to answer the questions ‘so what?’ and ‘now what?’
“The ‘so what’ is about the value of the degree. You’ve invested time, money, emotion and energy and you might reasonably ask ‘what will this degree get me and what is it worth?’” she said. “What your degree will be worth depends on how you spend it. How will you make it worth more than a piece of paper? How will you use it?”
She encouraged the students to realize they now have a voice, can write well and have met incredible people along the way.
Simmons said her mentor, the late Brock professor Michael Kompf, taught her to always pay it forward.
“Make your ‘so what’ and ‘now what’ the ways in which the gifts and privilege of your degree can benefit others,” said Simmons, who is committed to connecting student learning with personal interests, real-world activities, and 21st-century learning technologies. This is evident in the many courses she has developed and taught, both virtually and face-to-face.
Simmons, who rides equestrian dressage, involves her students in scholarship, co-presenting at conferences or co-authoring with them.
In addition to her teaching, Simmons is strongly engaged in educational leadership in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning nationally and internationally.
President and Vice-Chancellor Jack Lightstone congratulated the graduates and told them in his nearly 100 convocation ceremonies, they were by far the most boisterous and excited.
Convocation continues Thursday with the Goodman School of Business and Friday with the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences.
Watch the full afternoon Convocation ceremony below: