Commencement stories: Graduates share their paths to becoming Lakers and the ways GVSU will always be with them

Every degree earned has a uniquely personal story behind it. Here are the reflections of five Lakers on achieving their goals.

Priscila Ontiveros Chucatiny 'changes destiny' by moving to U.S. for college education

A student wearing a cap and gown smiles while off into the distance.
Priscila Ontiveros Chucatiny will earn a bachelor's degree in computer science.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

Priscila Ontiveros Chucatiny, who will soon earn a bachelor's degree in computer science, said she changed her destiny by coming to the U.S. for her education.

Ontiveros is a native of Bolivia. She arrived in Michigan in 2018 to attend Calvin University on a full scholarship to study engineering. Ontiveros has a robust background in robotics, including representing her country in the World Robotics Championship and giving a presentation as a high school senior for the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia during a Women in Tech event.

It was a Calvin faculty member who suggested that Ontiveros talk to FIRST Robotics participants at GVSU in January 2019. The Padnos College of Engineering and Computing hosts the annual competition for hundreds of high school students.

"I came to campus and just fell in love with Grand Valley," she said. "I gave my presentation then the dean came over to talk to me. There was an academic advisor who took me to the second floor of the Fieldhouse and told me all about GVSU's engineering program. I was hooked and transferred in the fall semester."

Ontiveros called Calvin the perfect place for her to initially establish herself in the U.S. "I'm from Bolivia, where some women don't drive let alone go to college. Calvin was the best first place I could have been, I made good friends there," she said.

At Grand Valley, Ontiveros found herself becoming more confident and extroverted. She was a student employee at Fresh Food Co., a tutor and worked for Facilities Planning for the past three years. "They really opened the welcome door for me. I really enjoyed working there," she said.

She switched her major from engineering to computer science after taking a foundation course and discovering "coding is where it's at."

Ontiveros will give the student address at the April 28 commencement ceremony. Her parents, uncle and aunt, and grandmother will travel from Bolivia to watch.

"It will be my grandma's first time traveling out of the country," Ontiveros said. "Grand Valley is just going to blow her mind, to see how big it is. There's a bus to take us between campuses. She's never seen anything like this."

Ontiveros gave a TED Talk as a high school senior about perseverance and passion. She's been an inspiration to other young girls in Bolivia who want to study computers and robotics. 

"I was so tired of being the only girl in robotics. I kept thinking, 'I can't be the only girl in this country who likes robots,'" Ontiveros said. "My dad inspired me to find opportunities and my mom encouraged me to make them a reality, like at the U.S. Embassy. I still get Facebook messages from girls from my country who say they want to accomplish things like I did."

Soon, Ontiveros will start a permanent job at Steelcase Inc. as an applications engineer. The offer came after her web development internship at the furniture manufacturing company. "It will be perfect. It's not only coding, part of the job is thinking of solutions to problems," she said.

When Ontiveros walks across the Commencement stage, she will be walking for her entire family. 

"This wouldn't have been possible without my parents. I really value their sacrifice, especially the unconditional financial support from my mom. It was a family effort for me to graduate," she said. "My destiny was to grow up and stay in Bolivia. I changed the narrative by coming to the U.S. for college."

-- By Michele Coffill

International student Jesse Goodyear makes connections, finds success and home on campus

A person wearing a blue cap and gown smiles while looking off to the side. The side of a building with many windows is in the background.
Jesse Goodyear will earn a bachelor of business administration degree in accounting and finance.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

Student athlete, international student and enthusiastic campus tour guide, Jesse Goodyear embarked on an overseas journey from Australia to the United States to access those opportunities, and more, that Grand Valley had in store for him. 

In Australia, colleges and athletics are very separated. Goodyear found an immediate community on the Laker swimming and diving team and then expanded his connections across campus. He will earn a bachelor of business administration degree in accounting and finance with a minor in sustainable urban regional planning, areas of study he was particularly keen about. 

“People tell me that my outgoing personality doesn’t seem to match up with being an accountant, which made me nervous at first, but I think that’s what will make me stand out from other accountants,” he said. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Goodyear returned to Australia. He said Seidman College of Business faculty members were very understanding of his schedule, including when he had to join Zoom class sessions at 3 a.m. his time.

“I was very nervous and essentially just giving it a try, coming to Grand Valley. When I started speaking with the people here, I was immediately taken care of. That made it so easy for me to choose to come here,” he said. “Ultimately, my choice of Grand Valley was purely because of how well I was treated.”

Goodyear has given back to the community that gave him a warm welcome. 

His work as an Admissions tour guide for prospective students allowed him to share his story of belonging. 

His teammates on the men’s swimming and diving team named Goodyear captain. Competitively, Goodyear left his mark as a Laker, taking first place in the 500-meter freestyle at the 2020 GLIAC Championships and second place in the same event in 2021. 

When Goodyear competed in an October swim meet in Indianapolis, he received news that he was crowned GVSU Homecoming regent. Although away from the celebration in Allendale, the distance did not stop him from celebrating the win with his teammates. 

Goodyear said he is excited to start his career, although he is still debating whether or not to return to Australia. Either way, he said he is ready to take on the opportunities that come at him.

“Previous to this, I wouldn't have said yes to opportunities. I used to be the person that sat back and watched things happen. Grand Valley has shown me that I am able to excel in any situation.”

-- By Clémence Daniere, student writer

Javier Guillen is ambassador for HBCU pipeline consortium as first graduate

A student wearing a cap and gown with a yellow piece of material draped over the shoulders and a yellow tassel stands in front of a tree and building.
Javier Guillen will earn a master's degree in cell and molecular biology.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

When Javier Guillen walks across the stage during Commencement ceremonies in April, he will represent a milestone as the first participant in the HBCU/HSI Pipeline Consortium to earn a Grand Valley degree.

Guillen was in the first cohort of Fort Valley State University students to enroll at Grand Valley in 2021. The consortium now includes four other historically Black colleges and universities, Savannah State, Saint Augustine's, Alabama State and Johnson C. Smith universities, and offers students opportunities to earn master's degrees while expanding talent pipelines in West Michigan.

Guillen is a good ambassador for the program. He will receive a master's degree in cell and molecular biology and is working in that field as an aseptic manufacturing associate for Grand River Aseptic Manufacturing, a Grand Rapids pharmaceutical contract development and manufacturing company.

The CMB master's program falls under the umbrella of the Professional Science Master's degree program. Guillen said because of that program, he feels well-prepared to handle the technical aspects of this new job and the soft skills needed in such a work environment.

"The program builds a foundation of what we will see going into industry: the types of processes involved, an overview of what we will be doing," he said. "Even in the seminar class I have now, we talk about how to prepare yourself for a job. This will be a seamless transition."

When students from Fort Valley or other HBCUs tour Grand Valley, Guillen often meets with them to share his experiences. Coming to a predominantly white institution is not the only adjustment for students, he said.

"There's a misconception that a PWI like Grand Valley is going to be harder, but that's any graduate school you go to," Guillen said. "Any master's program is going to require a higher level of critical thinking and understanding. This program will push you to grow as a professional. I had to become comfortable being uncomfortable, and that was where I found growth." 

Guillen had an internship with Michigan State University, at its Grand Rapids' Secchia Center, working with other researchers on the understanding of Alzheimer's disease. He also worked as a Grand Valley student success coach, overseeing several scholarship programs designed to bring in diverse talent into the university. 

He learned new places to go in Grand Rapids, like John Ball Zoo, while working with the scholar program. Guillen said he plans to continue exploring his new city and area.

The pipeline cohorts have formed a good community at Grand Valley, Guillen said, adding he shares that tidbit with potential graduate students he meets.

"I say that if they do decide to take the next step and come here, they should feel confident and know that there's already a family here to support them," he said.

-- By Michele Coffill

Jalen Kyles persisted to become student athlete at GVSU, experienced rewards on and off the track

A person wearing a cap and gown smiles while showing a top with the words "adidas" and the initials "GV" on a shirt.
Jalen Kyles will earn a bachelor's degree in integrative studies.
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

As he described what it is like to settle into the starting blocks for a track and field event such as the 200-yard dash, Jalen Kyles recalled how profoundly quiet it was.

It was just him, his inner thoughts and butterflies in his gut as he intensely focused on the next 21 seconds or so racing for the Lakers. He brought with him to that moment the persistence to contact the coaching staff, work out and make the team as a transfer student, and the discipline of waking up early to go to practice, even when he knew it would be hard.

"You just hear yourself. That's why the positive mindset is so crucial in track and field. There's nothing else around you but yourself," Kyles said. "I remember telling myself, 'All right. You practiced all week for this, let it go. Take some deep breaths and do what you trained to do.'"

Kyles, who has earned a bachelor's degree in integrative studies with an area focus of business leadership, said being a student athlete kept him motivated while helping him grow as he eyes a career in real estate.

"Honestly, it gave me another reason to understand why I'm doing the things I am and why I needed to be focused on the next things in life," Kyles said.

As someone with a tendency to keep to himself, Kyles said being part of the large track and field team set the stage for him to interact more and with many different personalities, an asset for someone who will need to work with the public as a real estate agent. He also gained valuable skills working as a counselor for summer camps hosted by the team.

In fact, Kyles said his entire experience at Grand Valley encouraged him to interact more with others. He said once pandemic-related restrictions eased, he made a point of making more connections.

"When I got out and started going to see what Grand Valley had to offer, the services offered, it was just amazing to be able to use them and network and have something for a lifetime," Kyles said.

He is also grateful for his interdisciplinary field of study, which he said helped open his mind to different perspectives on life and motivated him to more deeply understand the subject matter.

"Knowing our society and why it's the way it is, and how we can develop a better community around each other and be more involved – that is the purpose," Kyles said.

One reason Kyles is interested in the real estate field is so he can help people find the housing they both need and want.

"In the community I'm from, a lot of people don't own a house. I want to be able to help people find an affordable house for themselves," Kyles said. "That's a big goal for me because I think everyone should be able to do it."

-- By Peg West

'My heart is in the classroom.' Rachel Nooney finishes delayed degree for true calling

A person wearing a cap and gown smiles. A brick arch is in the background.
Rachel Nooney will earn a bachelor's degree in elementary education.
Image credit - Amanda Pitts

Rachel Nooney’s 10-year journey to obtain her bachelor’s degree in elementary education finally reaches its long awaited destination at the College of Education and Community Innovation’s Commencement. 

“My heart is in the classroom,” Nooney said.

Nooney initially enrolled at Grand Valley in 2010, but life challenges forced her to postpone her desired teaching degree in 2013, one semester shy of graduation. Instead, she became an insurance agent in Muskegon, though she said the career path wasn’t fulfilling for her. 

“It was a good career with great money, and I was working with my dad,” Nooney said. “But, I wasn’t thriving.”

Her decision to finish her education received an additional spark after she and her husband joined a church. Teaching a couple of Sunday school sessions reinforced her desire and spurred her toward completing her degree. Not long after, she accepted a substitute teaching position at Westshore Christian Academy in Muskegon Heights to help the school through the pandemic, which only solidified her commitment to return to Grand Valley. 

“I wanted to be in the classroom teaching so bad,” Nooney said.

With the support of her parents and husband, she re-enrolled at Grand Valley for the fall 2020 semester. Nooney, who lives in Grand Haven, found Grand Valley’s teaching options a great benefit to her demanding schedule, she said.

“The thing that really helped me as a returning student and as a mom are the online classes,” she said. “Offering those was life-changing.”

Through three years of balancing classwork, field placements and raising a family, she graduates on April 28, ready for her full time position at Westshore Christian Academy, teaching third and fourth grade.

“Honestly, it has gone so fast because everything I've done and every step I've taken at Grand Valley has benefited me in the current job I have as a teacher now, and I know it's just going to be even better for the future,” Nooney said. 

“Going in as an older student and re-enrolling, I've got this confidence that I can help others, and I am here to ask for help. I love where this is taking me.”

-- By Brian Vernellis


Sign up and receive the latest Grand Valley headlines delivered to your email inbox each morning.