University Park, IL,
11:14 AM

GSU Student Leaders to Speak at 2019 Commencement

Two student leaders at Governors State University have been selected to address their classmates during the Commencement ceremonies to be held on May 18, 2019.

Athanasios "Tommy" Kolovos will speak during the 10 a.m. service, when graduates from the colleges of Business and Arts and Sciences will receive degrees.

When Tommy talks about GSU, he speaks of a place where people go to make their dreams come true.

“Governors State seemed like a school for people who wanted to change their lives and wanted to make an impact,’’ said Tommy.

The sentiment spoke to Tommy, the son of a working-class family who pushed him to follow his own path.

After earning an associate degree at Joliet Junior College, Tommy arrived at GSU in 2017 and was delighted to find the student body was focused and serious.

Tommy was just 18 years old when he transferred to GSU at the beginning of his junior year. His resolve reflected an uncommon maturity and drive and remains evident today.

As a student leader, Tommy has made a mark on campus as a student representative on the Student Conduct Committee, and as an office assistant in the Office of the Provost.

He’s left an impression off campus, too. In 2018, Tommy won a scholarship to take his first ever trip abroad. He traveled to Rome, where he presented a project on travel safety for members of the LGBTQIA community.

He was also awarded the Lex Fellowship in Madrid, Spain, where he learned about international business law. He then went to work with the Global Brigades in Panama City, Panama, conducting legal clinics to help poor and rural families address human rights violations, including human trafficking.

He admits traveling is a close second to his passion to help others. “I’m happiest when I’m boarding a plane with a carry-on over my shoulder,” Tommy said.

His work helping others won Tommy a trip to the state capitol in the fall to receive a highly selective award. As the 2018 GSU Lincoln Laureate, Tommy’s leadership and service in the pursuit of the betterment of humanity was recognized by the Lincoln Academy of Illinois.

The award was a much needed boost for Tommy. “I went from being a 16-year-old with a 2.2 GPA in high school to being in college to being the Lincoln Laureate. I felt like I had made it.”

Still, Tommy recognizes that when he graduates in May with a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and Sociology, he is just beginning his journey.

With any luck, the first stop will be Madagascar off the southeast coast of Africa to serve with the United States Peace Corps. For those who question his drive to volunteer instead of earn money, he speaks with the wisdom of an older soul.

“I’m only 20, and I have my whole life to become an executive.”

Michelle Westergaard will speak at the 4:30 p.m., ceremony for colleges of Education and Health and Human Services graduates.

From the outside, it’s evident Michelle Westergaard was destined to be an educator.

While other little girls were playing with dolls, Michelle was pretending to run a classroom, complete with dry erase markers and white boards.

“That’s what I asked for, for birthdays and Christmas. I loved playing school, and I needed supplies,” she said.

Fast forward to 28-year-old Michelle, who is leading future teachers as part of Governors State University student organizations.

“My professors at GSU made it all possible for me. They believed in me and supported me," Michelle said.

She found Governors State when possibilities seemed limited. By the age of 25, Michelle had studied at a larger university and was overwhelmed by its size and scope.

She welcomed the smaller class sizes at GSU and its professors who took a personal interest in her lifelong passion to work with elementary school children.

Professors encouraged Michelle to join groups, and through her involvement with organizations on campus such as the Student Education Association and the prestigious Kappa Delta Pi International Honors Society of Education, Michelle helped build membership and raise money and awareness for local schools and their needs. This year, she served as vice president and president, respectively.

For her gift of service, Michelle evolved as a leader and was rewarded with highly sought opportunities, including a chance to see the world.

For 12 days during the summer of 2018, she toured Slovenia, Croatia, and Italy with her College of Education classmates, cherishing her time with special friends she met in her early days on campus. Michelle was inspired by the beautiful architecture in the countries that provided higher education to students at no cost to them.

Today, Michelle reflects on how the trip helped her think more broadly about impacting lives from an early age. Studying abroad also helped Michelle form opinions about running her own classroom after she graduates in May with a Bachelor of Arts in Education.

Regardless of the lesson plan, each day in Michelle’s class will carry a theme of acceptance and tolerance, she said.

“My philosophy is heart based. In addition to helping students grow cognitively, I want to help them grow socially and emotionally—to know they are loved and that diversity is celebrated.”

It’s a message likely to be echoed throughout their elementary school years and well into high school, where teachers like Michelle’s new fiance—a 9th grade English teacher—will pick it up.

The coincidence of a future educator marrying an educator is not lost on Michelle. “It was meant to be.”