First-class legacy
Georgia Gwinnett College to graduate 17 trailblazers

LAWRENCEVILLE - Two years ago, 119 students made history when they decided to attend the first four-year college built in Georgia in more than 100 years.

Saturday, 17 of those trailblazers will make history again when they graduate from Georgia Gwinnett College.

Since the college opened in August 2006, students have helped shape the school's identity by creating several clubs - including the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS), Georgia Gwinnett Golden Guild (Four G's) and Biology Club - and choosing the school's mascot, the Grizzlies.

The chance to be a part of a brand-new college attracted Grayson resident Rico Torres to Georgia Gwinnett.

"I wanted to be a part of building and putting my fingerprints on something that will last for hundreds of years," he said.

Torres, who majored in business, said he's been involved with several of the college's "firsts" - from the first orientation to the first study abroad trip. He's also the first member of the new Alumni Association.

After graduation, Torres said he plans to continue working as a systems support specialist at the Publix distribution center in Atlanta, but he's thinking about graduate school - something he hadn't previously considered.

"I (once) thought I wouldn't make it past an associate's degree," Torres said. "The tables have turned now. ... Commencement doesn't mean your education stops. It's the beginning of something new."

Psychology major Carrol Lewallen said she's planning to attend graduate school after taking six months off to study for the GRE, or Graduate Record Examination.

Lewallen, a longtime Duluth resident, said she obtained her GED after dropping out of high school. She received an associate's degree in 1996 from Georgia Perimeter College.

"With children growing up, I had to go to work to meet the needs of the household," she said. "All during that time, I wanted to go to school."

Lewallen said it didn't seem feasible to go to Atlanta at night to continue her studies. Finally, 10 years after she graduated from Perimeter, a four-year college opened in Lawrenceville.

"I didn't want to be one of the first ones. I just wanted to go back to school," she said. "All the stars aligned, and there I was."

Suwanee resident Andrea Ide said she decided to apply to Georgia Gwinnett because she didn't make it into the University of Georgia. After graduation, the psychology major is bound for Harvard University, where she will pursue a master's of education in human development and psychology.

Ide helped found the Student Government Association and the Psychology Club. She said getting involved in extracurricular activities was worthwhile - and necessary.

"Being on a campus that small, you feel like you have to get involved. If you don't do it, no one else will do it," she said. "We had to be the ones that did everything. We're all proud of it.

"I hope (our legacy) is one of involvement in the school and dedication to the school beyond just showing up to class."

Stanley "Stas" Preczewski, the college's vice president for academic and student affairs, said the charter students have set the standard for subsequent classes to follow in participation, leadership and selflessness.

When the students arrived on campus, they were "skeptical pioneers," Preczewski said. "Now they're confident innovators."

Business major Billy Johnson, a Lilburn resident and the founding president of the SGA, said his experiences at Georgia Gwinnett helped sharpen his critical thinking skills and introduced him to new perspectives.

One of the most memorable experiences was the study abroad trip to Europe, Johnson said. On a bus ride through the Alps, Johnson said he kept having "wow" moments.

"I realized there's a whole world full of 'wow' moments," he said. "It opened my eyes to how much is out there."

Johnson said he hopes subsequent classes will build on the foundation created by the charter students.

"We gave it our all," he said. "I hope students in the future can see that and carry on with the same passion and enthusiasm."