Senior dinners rite of passage at Ozarks

Release Date: 4/13/2012

One week a year since spring 1998, graduating seniors come together for a last meal. They meet in the lovely, movie-poster lined living room of President and First Lady Rick and Sherée Niece, not only to say goodbye, but also to acknowledge what their time at Ozarks has meant to them, and to look forward.

This year was no different. In spring or summer, 102 seniors will graduate, leaving U of O for the next stage of their lives, and recently they went through their own dinners.

In addition to the lovely meal, the event has its traditions: the students rise one by one to identify themselves and their majors, describe their lives in one year, and explain how they have changed since their first year in college four years before.

Graduating senior Natalie Grove talks about her experiences at Ozarks.

Graduating senior Natalie Grove talks about her experience at Ozarks and her plans for the future at her senior dinner.

One of the most interesting parts of the evening is that it happens at all. "I've known a lot of college graduates who were surprised when I described the dinners to them," says Ozarks Alumni Director Lori McBee, who attends the events. "How many colleges can you name where the university president literally knows every student on campus on a first-name basis? Or brings people into his home to dine and say goodbye, personally makes sure they have everything they need, and ends the whole evening with candy from his own private gumball machine?"

Says Niece, who will be retiring at the end of the 2013 school year, "Probably my favorite part of those dinners is remembering the students when they were freshmen, then hearing their own descriptions of how they have changed since then. It's hearing them recognize their own progress. It's very rewarding."

There are naturally a wide range of majors graduating every year, but it's interesting to hear how those majors have evolved in four years.

"I came here not having any idea of what I was going to do with my life," said Matthew Chalfant of Charleston, Arkansas. "I'd transferred from another college where I had been pursuing a major in physics. I got here and realized that physics was a minor - so, because I've always been a big thinker anyway, I chose philosophy as a major. And I found out a whole bunch of things I've never thought about before. Ever. I have gained large insights since I walked through these doors. In a year I'll still be writing down my ideas."

Most people felt they had become less shy in their four years, more mature, more outspoken. "Nowadays I'd say when I know I need or want to do something, I don't wait for somebody to give me the go-ahead," said Natalie Grove, a Secondary Education and English major from Huntsville, Arkansas. "I know what I need and that I can make those decisions for myself."

Sabrina Goddard, a Biology pre-med major from Stroud, Oklahoma, agreed. "I've definitely become more independent and matured overall," she said, "but I've also realized the power of community. You can't do everything on your own. I needed my close friends and mentors to achieve what I have, and I realize you need to keep those kinds of people close. You don't find them very often."

Alex Glaub is going into ministry. "Up till now I would say other people have called the shots in my life, and now I could say I'm calling the shots, but it's God calling the shots, and I'm just following," he said. He is interning at an area church now.

The overall message is one of hope and optimism, but one senior managed to mention something none of the others had. Chemistry major Michael Prusator, who plans to return to Tulsa to pursue his master's in chemical engineering but who says his back-up plans include railway engineer, crocodile hunter, motivational speaker, or ice fisherman, capped the evening, to general applause, when he said, "I've gotten smarter in four years here because I've taken lots of classes. Nobody so far has actually mentioned getting an education! First and foremost, of all the changes I've gone through in four years at Ozarks, it's the education that has changed my life forever. Whatever I end up being!"