International College Graduates of 15th Annual Commencement Show Dedication, Determination to Earn Degrees

A total of 467 students were conferred today during International College’s 15th Annual Commencement Ceremony. And while the vast majority of students have sacrificed in some way to earn their associate, bachelor, or master degree, three students particularly stand out for their journey to the Philharmonic stage.


GRAD STORY 1: Will Bowden, of Naples, who turned 31 the day before graduation, had been activated for duty four times since enrolling with International College in 2002. He has successfully earned a bachelor’s degree in Management. Bowden’s wife of seven years, Jill, will accept the degree on his behalf at the ceremony. Bowden, meanwhile, plans to watch the ceremony in Iraq via a live web camera.

Following the events of 9/11, Bowden was sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to support Detainee Operations. Shortly thereafter, he was sent up for training in New London, Connecticut. Last year, he was reactivated in September but deployment was delayed. He was again reactivated in January 2004 for a fourth time and remains in Iraq, where he serves as an Ensign for the United States Coast Guard, assigned to protect ports and high value assets outside the United States. While in Iraq during the winter 2004 term, Bowden took distance education/online courses through International College. After putting in 14- to 16-hour days to fulfill his reservist duties, Bowden would then study late evenings and during other spare time to complete the 20 credit hours he needed in order to graduate in June.

“When International College learned I was going to be deployed during what was to be my last semester before graduating, I found out just how supportive a college could be. The college faculty and staff made sure something was in place to allow me to continue,” Bowden said via email. “A lot of hard work and planning went into helping me, and I am very thankful faculty and staff of International College helped me, especially during a very active time for our country’s military reservists.”

Bowden, who also is a patrolman with the Naples Police and Emergency Services Department, said he is grateful to have completed his degree.

“One of my goals has always been to achieve a degree. It was a personal life goal,” Bowden said. “I am overjoyed to have earned my degree. I have worked toward this aspiration for a long time.”

Jill Bowden is proud to receive her husband’s hard-earned degree.

“Will is completely beside himself with joy. I’m blown away by everything Will does. His spirit is unwavering,” Jill Bowden said. “When he thought he wasn’t going to graduate, he was beyond disappointed. Will deserves this because he works hard for the military, his school, and for the police department.”

GRAD STORY 2: Sarasota resident Robert Zielinski had only one more class to take in order to earn his bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice. Then, he was activated for Army Reserve duty in January 2003. Shortly thereafter, he was deployed to Iraq.

Prior to the activation, Zielinski had immersed himself in studies, taking 16 credit hours. He also worked for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office as a Sergeant in the Corrections Division.

“When I was deployed, I didn’t think I would be gone for a year. I don’t think anybody did,” Zielinski said.

During that year, Zielinski wrote extensively with school officials in the hopes he could take his last class online. In September 2003, Zielinski became the first soldier to take a distance learning course while activated and overseas. But as a Military Police officer, the task was challenging. Zielinski conducted missions on the road and was sent to various locations throughout Iraq. Class assignments and papers were sent to his professor via email as well as regular post mail.

“I didn’t really think about all that was going on in my life at the time. For me, that one class was an unfinished mission,” Zielinski said. “I was trying to lead by example as a Staff Sergeant. There were a lot of young guys who put off college. They didn’t see things the way I did. When I completed the class, they told me they wished they could have done the same thing.”

Zielinski received news in February 2004 that he had successfully completed the online course. In April, Zielinski returned to Sarasota.

Professor Les Sutter, who sponsored the online course for Zielinski, said he was particularly impressed with Zielinski’s fortitude.

“The circumstances for Robert were pretty tough. Despite the grim situation in Iraq, Robert was able to successfully earn his degree,” Sutter said. “Where there is will, there is a way. Robert showed he had the will. International College found him the way.”

GRAD STORY 3: Naples resident Anke Stimpson saw the finish line in sight. She was down to her last semester of school. She was on track to graduate with a perfect 4.0 grade point average and an MBA. She was two weeks away from running in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. Then, tragedy struck.

In October 2002, Anke was involved in a twin-engine Cessna Citation accident in central Maine. Her legs were broken. Her left ankle was dislocated. Her face sustained multiple fractures. Somehow, Stimpson survived the accident. Doctors put a screw and plate in her left ankle, which put her in a wheelchair for six weeks. She underwent three surgeries on her face. Her jaw was wired shut. She still faces more facial surgeries. Anke endured months of rehab in order to relearn how to walk.

Through it all, only two things remained on her mind: finishing school and being able to run again.

“Next to not being able to do the marathons, what really upset me was that I was so close to graduating,” Stimpson, 55, said. “I didn’t know how long it would take to finish school.”

Stimpson admits it was difficult, at first, to concentrate. She slowly got herself back on track by answering crossword puzzles and reading Harry Potter books. Then, in mid-January 2003, she called International College Dean of the School of Business Frederick Nerone, Ph.D, and asked to return.

During her rehabilitation in Connecticut, Stimpson received phone calls from professors and Nerone, as well as cards filled with well wishes. Nerone allowed to Stimpson to take one class until she was capable to take on more.

“Anke is a very resilient woman. Though the accident set her back, she was completely driven to complete her degree,” Nerone said. “Anke’s recovery was amazing. She returned to a marathon of academic studies and is participating in commencement this weekend. She is an extraordinary woman.”

Stimpson credits a part of her academic success to the assistance of International College faculty and staff. Stimpson has earned an MBA and hopes to participate in the Jacksonville Marathon in December.

“Professors at International College really worked hard to make it possible for me to earn my degree,” Stimpson said. “I never realized I was this strong and motivated. You never realize what you are all about until you come up against adversity. If you persevere and have the support you need, you can achieve anything you set out to do. I’m graduating and walking and plan on having a great time. This truly is a right of passage.”
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