Pomp and circumstance: NIU marks spring commencement

commencement-spring-18-1NIU College of Education graduates stepped in the spotlight over the weekend during the spring commencement ceremonies.

Acting NIU President Lisa Freeman told the audience at the May 12 undergraduate ceremony about Elizabeth Hipskind, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Special Education.

During the May 11 Graduate School ceremony, Freeman spoke about Rachel Morrison, who earned a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education.

Here are President Freeman’s comments.

Elizabeth Hipskind

October 24, 2017: a date Elizabeth Hipskind will never forget.

Elizabeth Hipskind
Elizabeth Hipskind

She was in Rockford, completing a clinical in a secondary classroom of students with low-functioning autism. During an art activity, Elizabeth briefly turned her back on a 17-year-old girl.

It was then that she felt the bite, teeth piercing her right arm. Elizabeth instinctively tried to pull away, allowing the girl’s bite to drag four inches higher above the elbow.

NIU Health Services prescribed antibiotics to treat the infection and physical therapy for loss of mobility.

During two months of PT, with relentless fever and limited use of her dominant hand, she overcame academic challenges through speech-recognition software and understanding faculty.

And talk about resilient! During this difficult period, Elizabeth never missed one class, kept a 4.0 grade point average, remained active in extracurriculars and maintained a positive attitude about everything.

Most importantly, she realized something amazing: Classrooms like that one in Rockford are where she truly belongs, not those that match her original goal of K-2 students with mild disabilities. Rockford fueled her purpose and passion for special education, the only career she’s ever wanted.

Elizabeth comes from Oklahoma. A young woman of deep faith, she grew up teaching Sunday School. Five years ago, she connected with a second-grader with autism and found her future.

She combined 19 hours of Advanced Placement credit with six consecutive semesters of heavy course loads to graduate in three years.

It’s hard to believe now, but Elizabeth almost returned home after her freshman year. I’m happy she stayed.

Here she’s tapped great opportunities. Teaching in Houston! Mentoring adult performers with special needs on the Penguin Players stage!

She’s also turned curiosity into research, including an 11,000-word paper on how college students with mental illness respond to characters in film with corresponding diagnoses.

I’m thrilled that her parents, Stefan and Stephanie, and other loved ones have made the 670-mile trip to see her dream come true. Congratulations, Elizabeth!


Rachel Morrison

Rachel Morrison wears many hats. She’s a mother of two, a military spouse, a preschool teacher and today, a Huskie graduate.

Rachel Morrison
Rachel Morrison

The road to earning her master’s degree in early childhood education began three years ago when she and her family moved to DeKalb from the Fort Stewart in Georgia.

“Coming here, and having the kids in school full time, I just really wanted to do something for myself,” Rachel said. “I wasn’t sure if I could balance everything but I wanted to give it a try.”

And she did.

In 2015, Rachel became a full-time student at NIU, and in 2016, she began taking classes in the evening while working part-time as a preschool teacher in DeKalb. Then in 2017, her husband, Jay, a colonel in the United States Army, was deployed to Kuwait. That didn’t deter Rachel from pursuing her master’s degree.

“I would put in a full day of work, go to class, come home and put my kids to bed. Then I’d start my homework,” Rachel said. “Finding a balance with all the different roles I played was a challenge.”

But Rachel proved she was up for the challenge. While earning her master’s degree and raising her two boys, she has maintained an impressive 4.0 grade point average.

She said she is grateful for the support she received at NIU, especially from Professor Myoungwhon Jung. “I took two of his classes and he has been my supervising teacher through all of my student teaching,” Rachel said. “He really went out of his way to help me, and I know he gives a lot of his own time on weekends and evenings to help his students.”

Col. Jay Morrison said this about his wife via email from Kuwait. “Too often people confuse me as a hero because of the uniform I wear,” he said. “When I am asked who my hero is, it is Rachel.”

Her two sons, ages 7 and 11, share the sentiment. “They would tell me that I was doing a great job and that they were proud of me,” Rachel said.

Rachel said she is proud of herself too, and is looking forward to starting the next chapter of her life. Her husband finishes his tour in July and the family will be moving to a military base outside of Tacoma, Washington, in August. “My goal is to teach full time there,” Rachel said. “And I am really looking forward to spending more time with my kids and having my husband back.”

Our hats are off to Rachel. You worked hard and deserve to be recognized for your efforts.

Please enjoy this photo gallery from Spring 2018 commencement!

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