YSU grads diving into future

Staff photo / Allie Vugrincic Jean O’Connell Spalla of Girard holds onto her diploma after receiving her Ph.D. from Youngstown State University Saturday afternoon in an outdoor ceremony at Stambaugh Stadium.

YOUNGSTOWN — The meaning behind the expression on Alexis Porterfield’s mortarboard runs considerably deeper than her decision to travel some 300 miles to attend college.

“It stuck with me. Eventually, I plan to get my Ph.D. and keep going until I can’t,” said Porterfield, of Accokeek, Md., referring to the phrase that read, “There’s just no telling how far I’ll go.”

The exercise-science major, who’s a year from earning a master’s degree, added the saying atop her cap also is symbolic of her resolve to continue forging ahead and refusing to allow obstacles related to the health pandemic to stop her.

The most recent travel she had to make, however, was merely to and across the stage to receive her degree, something she and hundreds of fellow Youngstown State University spring Class of 2021 members did during the second of YSU’s two outdoor commencements Saturday at Stambaugh Stadium.

Students who took home degrees during the morning commencement were in the Cliffe College of Creative Arts; the College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; and the Williamson College of Business Administration. Those who graduated in the afternoon ceremony were from the Beeghly College of Liberal Arts, Social Sciences and Education; and the Bitonte College of Health and Human Services.

Porterfield decided to attend YSU also because her grandfather, Stephen Baker, was a chemistry professor there, she said.

For Gregory Boerio, the afternoon commencement represented the latest extension on a continuum for him to fulfill a goal of “wanting to ensure our students have a voice and have access to the best quality educational opportunities.”

Boerio, who took home a doctorate degree in educational leadership, is the executive director of The Rich Center for Autism on the YSU campus, which has 51 students on the autism spectrum. He also serves as an adjunct professor in YSU’s school psychology program.

Boerio completed his undergraduate work at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and earned master’s degrees in education and school psychology from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He also has a background as a special education administrator and a school psychologist.

Delivering the keynote address was Kristin Fox, 40, of Poland, a quadruple amputee who continues to inspire many people with her example of perseverance, determination, fortitude and passion in dealing with her life-changing ordeal.

“A week before our country was shut down, I was shut down,” Fox told the graduates, referring to having learned just before the pandemic hit in March 2020 that her arms and legs would need to be partially amputated because of a series of medical conditions for which she was hospitalized.

Fox used the blueprint of her life in the last 14 months to encourage those at the ceremony to celebrate small victories others take for granted, believe in themselves and use their hearts and minds to figure out difficult choices.

“I had to learn to sit up again at age 39,” Fox said, adding that her perseverance has allowed her to maintain a new mindset to “be the best version of myself.”

“Don’t ever let anyone tell you, you can’t,” said the longtime educator and YSU grad, who added frustrating moments reinforce her desire to keep moving forward.

The student reflection was from Kennedy P.M. Romeo, a 2017 Ursuline High School graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and sociology.

Romeo urged her fellow grads to symbolically “light fires wherever you go” via their actions and examples they set.


Thanks to having earned their degrees, friends and photography majors Amanda Bendel and Yesenia E. Pezel’s next life chapters have come into sharper focus.

“I want to go into marketing and advertising, and do photography for an advertising agency,” said Pezel, who graduated summa cum laude and donned a mortarboard that read, “Mom, Dad, we did it! Graduated college!”

Along those lines, she has a handful of interviews lined up this summer, Pezel said, recalling she and Bendel met during their freshman year in a class called Introduction to Sculpture, then tapped into their love of photography and the arts.

Saturday morning’s commencement was extra special for Bendel because she became the first in her family to graduate from college. Her career options remain open, although she has a promising job offer this summer as social-media director for a competitive cheerleading team, the new graduate said.

The special occasion was bittersweet for Evie L. Zimmer of Cleveland, a painter who enrolled at YSU for its arts programs and had one of her works awarded at the Butler Institute of American Art’s annual National Midyear Show. She also earned a master’s degree in interdisciplinary fine arts.

“I’m choking back the tears, sometimes,” she said.

Zimmer also was disappointed, though, because the pandemic deprived her daughter Mia Zimmer of taking part in a traditional commencement after having graduated from the University of Mount Olive in Mount Olive, N.C., as valedictorian with a 4.0 grade-point average.

Harold Danko, 73, a longtime jazz pianist, composer and bandleader who graduated from YSU’s Dana School of Music, gave the keynote address. He used the mistakes he made in early piano lessons as metaphors for the importance of persevering in life.

“I learned to improvise — to turn wrong notes into right notes,” said Danko, who has played with legendary jazz saxophonists Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz, and serves as professor emeritus at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

Danko, who also served on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, advised the graduates to never fear asking questions and listening to the answers, sharing their knowledge and talents, and seeing the importance of making corrections as a valuable life skill.

Also, YSU President Jim Tressel conferred upon Danko an honorary doctorate of music degree.

Jeffrey Senediak, a 2017 Austintown Fitch High School graduate and valedictorian who earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, delivered the student reflection.

In his remarks at both ceremonies, Tressel praised the grads for their accomplishments during the pandemic and urged them to strive for excellence in all they do, give back to their communities, set high goals and make a difference in the world.


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