• October 31, 2014

Commencement 2011: a Surprise Proposal and Some Notable Long Journeys

Commencement Portraits: a Surprise Proposal and Some Notable Long Journeys 1

Saint Leo U.

On the commencement stage, moments after collecting her diploma from Saint Leo U., Tamiko Crawford got a marriage proposal from Donald Pongnon, who took time off from his civilian job in Afghanistan to surprise her.

Tamiko Crawford always gets nervous in front of crowds, so as she walked across the stage last month at Saint Leo University's commencement for its Virginia campus, she concentrated on collecting her diploma and not falling down.

Such was her focus that she did not immediately recognize the guy blocking her path at the end of the stage.

"I thought, Who is this man with this suit on?" she recalls.

The man was her boyfriend, Donald Pongnon, and he was supposed to be serving with the military in Afghanistan. In a Skype call just that morning, he had congratulated Ms. Crawford and lamented that they couldn't be together on her big day.

When she finally recognized him, she dashed over in her wedge heels and tried to drag him from the stage. As the crowd watched the scene unfold on giant video displays, Mr. Pongnon dropped to his left knee and held up a ring.

"Will you marry me?"

Ms. Crawford froze for what seemed an eternity.

"Hey! Hey! I'm on my knees!" he cried. "Yes or no?"

It wasn't the first time he'd popped the question.

The two had met when Mr. Pongnon's daughter, Azayla, now 14, was a student in Ms. Crawford's first-grade class. He was in the Navy, a single parent, and when he went out to sea, Ms. Crawford had volunteered to care for Azayla along with her own children.

"I was kind of like her mom," Ms. Crawford says. "I ended up keeping her all the time. You know how you get attached to some students?"

The arrangement continued, even when Mr. Pongnon was stationed for a full year at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, and the two divorcees became best friends.

He suggested they date. She declined.

"I never wanted to mess up the friendship," she says. "Because if it didn't work out, I would have lost my friend."

Every year on October 12, Ms. Crawford's birthday, Mr. Pongnon would ask her to marry him, and every year she'd say no. Last year he didn't ask, so she called him.

"We should try this," Ms. Crawford told him.

He replied: "Did you call the wrong number? 'Cause I don't know who this is."

They did finally start dating after that, but there was a hitch: Mr. Pongnon had already made another commitment. He had agreed to go to Afghanistan for an indefinite stay as a civilian member of the U.S. Naval infantry after retiring from the military in May 2010.

The two discussed marriage in daily Skype calls and, unbeknownst to Ms. Crawford, he persuaded his commanders to let him step up his scheduled leave so he could surprise her at graduation.

For the record, she ended the commencement-day suspense with an enthusiastic "Yes!," and the couple are planning a March wedding. He has to return to Afghanistan June 8, and they're hoping he'll wrap up his tour of duty in August.

His fiancée will be counting down the days. Till his return, she says, "I just tell him, 'Be safe.'"

A Journey of 5,000 Miles Begins With 2 Flats

With the ink barely dry on her bachelor's degree from Emory University, Anna Snyder is crossing the United States on a tandem bicycle with her boyfriend and raising money for pediatric cancer research in the process.

Ms. Snyder and Kevin Kelly, who previously worked in Emory's Office of International Affairs, began their meandering adventure May 24 on Tybee Island, Ga. They covered themselves in sunscreen, ceremonially dipped the rear tire of their Santana Arriva into the Atlantic Ocean, and pointed the bike west. Before the day was over, they would suffer two flat tires and the loss of their GPS unit, which someone apparently nicked while the two were checking into their motel room for the night.

Fortunately for the couple, things have been looking up since then. They've found comfortable camping spots and even been given free lodging and food from businesses willing to help out their cause, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, in Memphis. The couple selected the hospital as their beneficiary in memory of Ms. Snyder's father, who died of cancer when she was in high school.

"He would have loved this bike trip," she says. "He loved riding bikes and tinkering with things. He also was magic with children. He could make a baby stop crying or even make the grumpiest 2-year-old giggle."

Ms. Snyder and Mr. Kelly saved up money to cover the costs of their three-month trip, for which they've budgeted $25 a day. They're hoping to raise $20,000 in donations for St. Jude's through their Web site, The Touring Tandem.

Their destination is Cape Flattery, in Washington, where they plan to dip the front tire of their bike in the Pacific Ocean by late summer.

Bricks for the President

For at least the past two decades, graduating seniors at Albright College, in Pennsylvania, have observed an odd tradition: When the president hands them their diplomas, each graduate hands him something back. It is always something tiny, a token symbol of the seniors' years at the college, and it is always a secret.

This year the 314 members of the class of 2011 each gave President Lex O. McMillan III a single Lego brick. They did so in recognition of the several campus construction projects undertaken during their four years at the college, including a new science center and a fitness center. The class also provided Mr. McMillan with a container (pictured) to hold the blocks, a box made of red and white Legos (Albright's colors) and bearing a large "A" for "Albright." Atop the structure were Lego construction workers, one of whom dangled from a harness—a nod to a roofer who was rescued midair by his safety harness when he stumbled from a scaffolding on a project this spring.

Past years' gifts have been equally symbolic: a birthday candle to mark Albright's sesquicentennial in 2006, a (soggy) goldfish cracker to mark the passing of a carp that lived in the campus pond, and—last year—a tiny pink plastic pig to remind everyone of the preceding autumn's scramble to prepare for the threat of the H1N1 virus, popularly known as swine flu.

From Homelessness to Pomp and Circumstance

Tom Sleeth has a simple piece of advice for anyone facing adversity: "Never give up on your goals. Eventually you'll succeed."

Mr. Sleeth achieved one of his goals last month, graduating from Le Moyne College, in Syracuse, on May 22 and turning 45 on the same day, but he's overcome a number of obstacles to get there.

Fresh out of high school in 1984, he enrolled at the State University of New York at Fredonia, but when his father and grandfather died the following year, he had to drop out to support his mother.

"My mom was not doing well at all," he says. "I went to work at any blue-collar job I could find."

He served in the Marines and drove a truck, just two stops on a path that could best be described as a slow-motion downward spiral, through two failed marriages, bankruptcy, and injuries to his knee, ankle, and back.

In 2006 he got a call from a vocational-rehabilitation counselor with the Veterans Administration. She'd heard that his mother had died a year earlier and his second marriage had just ended.

"What are you going to do with your life?" she asked.

Mr. Sleeth says he told the counselor, "I'm going to drink beer and chase girls."

She had other plans for him. He'd been accepted to Onondaga Community College, and because he was an injured vet, she told him, the federal government would cover his tuition and fees. He graduated two years later and was accepted to start at Le Moyne in 2008.

But what money he had was tied up in a bankruptcy lawsuit, and Mr. Sleeth says he had become "utterly despondent."

"Things were getting a lot worse," he recalls. "Income was rough."

He became homeless for part of his time at Le Moyne, living both out of his pickup truck and with friends, dodging the police, and occasionally eating from trash bins. But last September he learned that enough money remained from his bankruptcy settlement to pay off his pickup truck and buy a trailer to live in.

"Everything worked out beyond my wildest expectations and dreams," says Mr. Sleeth, who credits his survival to his professors' encouragement, his faith in God, and his own perseverance.

"My life is so turned around now," he says. "Words will never express how humble I am."

Now he has a new goal: a master's degree in student counseling, so that he can help others as others have helped him.

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