Portraits of Successful Alumnae

  Fulton, Manson, Ellison
  Friday, October 17, 2014 9:50 AM
  Archives 2014 - 2015

Abilene, TX

Success can be measured in many ways. But however you measure success, attaining it requires certain characteristics - sacrifice, challenge, motivation, hard work, knowledge, skill and attitude.

The following stories highlighting successful McMurry women recognize their many accomplishments and talents and, underlying it all, their alma mater’s role in developing and equipping them for success on their life journeys.

Ash AlmonteAsh Almonte ’08

By Loreta Fulton

McMurry graduate Ash Almonte ’08 could rightfully boast about several achievements in the world of fine art.

But perhaps the best evidence that she has “made it” in that highly competitive world isn’t what’s hanging on walls in public facilities and private homes. Maybe it’s in what she said.

“I can eat!” Almonte exclaimed, signifying that she has, indeed, made it as a full-time artist.

Almonte earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from McMurry in 2008. She acknowledged that many people had helped her get to where she is today, including her husband, Erwin Almonte ’05, who also is a McMurry graduate, and folks in the McMurry art department.

Today, the couple lives in Austin where Erwin works for a software developer and Ash paints in her home studio. Her works, all abstract impressionism, are for sale at the Russell Collection Fine Art Gallery in Austin. An imaginative work also can be seen in the new center for breast cancer patients at Seton Hospital.
The 3 by 7-foot work is a collection of fingerprints of everyone who helped establish the center. Someone who saw Almonte’s work in the Russell gallery commissioned the work.

“I’ve never done anything like that before,” she said.

Almonte knew as a child she wanted to be an artist and found support first at Hawley High School and then at McMurry. Her Hawley art teacher, Evynne Cassey, convinced Almonte that she could go to college, major in art, and become a full-time artist.

Once she got to McMurry, she found others who nurtured and inspired her, including Judy Deaton who at the time taught art history at McMurry and art professor Kathie Walker-Millar.

Walker-Millar’s husband, Larry Millar, knew Almonte’s husband and was aware of Ash’s talent. He and his wife helped persuade Ash to attend McMurry. She immediately took to Kathie Walker-Millar and her classes.

“I felt like I knew someone,” Almonte said. “I felt comfortable around her.”

The relationship blossomed and today Walker-Millar has equally high praise for her former student, whom she has invited back to campus to speak to current art students.

 “She’s a jewel,” Walker-Millar said.

While at McMurry, Almonte worked extremely hard, was an insatiable learner, and took her opportunity seriously. Almonte had many good traits, Walker-Millar said, but one characteristic really stood out.

“She was extremely teachable,” Walker-Millar remembered. “She was extraordinary.”

Almonte was born and raised in Abilene. Her father, Herschel McCoy still lives in Abilene. Her mother, Montie Deaver, and stepfather live in Austin.

Almonte graduated from Hawley High School in 2002 and began thinking about college and learning to be a professional artist. She was awarded the Perry Bentley Art Scholarship, which made it possible to attend McMurry.

Her training under expert eyes at McMurry made it possible for Almonte to reach the goals she has attained in the competitive art world. In 2010, she was commissioned by the Abilene Philharmonic Association to create a painting in observance of the philharmonic’s 60th anniversary. The painting was auctioned and used to create posters and mailings.

Now, she has been commissioned for the Seton Hospital piece and has sold works to private citizens who want to add some pizzazz to their walls.

Almonte credits her expert tutelage and enriching environment at McMurry for giving her the tools she needs to succeed. She enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, comfortable setting, and knowledged, caring faculty.

Now, it’s time to celebrate. Almonte has the credentials to say she has “made it” in the art world.

“It has been challenging, but nice,” she said. “I make sure I give thanks every day.”

Jori SechristJori Sechrist ’01

By Katherine Manson

For Dr. Jori Sechrist ’01, McMurry has always been a part of her life. The 2001 graduate not only married a fellow graduate; but her older sister, cousin, and sister-in-law are all graduates as well. 

“McMurry has always held a lot of history to me and my family,” Jori explained. In the fall of 2014, she will continue building upon that history as a new Assistant Professor of sociology in McMurry’s Sociology department.

“I’m really excited to go back to McMurry. I think hard work is one of the most important factors in the success of students. They work really hard, and professors that work hard alongside of them make a big difference.”

While a student at McMurry, Jori participated in a number of social and leadership activities including T.I.P. and student government.

“My experiences at McMurry helped shape me, and also make me successful in my career,” she said. “My involvement helped shape my leadership skills, confidence, and also being able to navigate social relationships. The challenges of time management I learned while at McMurry especially helped me succeed in graduate school.”

After she graduated McMurry, she received her master’s and Ph.D in sociology from Purdue University where she focused her research and studies on family caregiving, aging, race and ethnicity, health and well-being, and intergenerational relations. She began teaching at the University of Texas-Pan American as an assistant professor of Sociology.

“Part of what I do in class is to get students to understand first, that old age isn’t as bad as everyone on the young age of the spectrum thinks it might be. But also, that it is connected to what we do now,” said Jori. “All of our health, our well-being, and our financial well-being, is connected to the decisions we are making right now.”

It was her undergraduate experience at McMurry where she felt particularly driven and inspired by her professors, as they encouraged her to pursue her dreams. The dedication shown by her college professors helped encourage Jori to become a sociology professor, and take those lessons she learned as a student and apply them to her work as a professor.

In addition to her mentors, she credits her liberal arts education where she was exposed to a variety of disciplines allowing her to begin thinking in a new way, in different perspectives.

“That’s what a liberal arts education does, it gives you a little taste of a whole lot of different ways of viewing the world,” Jori explained. “That’s the great thing about McMurry and other liberal arts schools, the faculty really care where you go in life and they really help to put you on a track to success by spending time and effort in helping you to succeed.”

The study of sociology excited her because she was able to take a scientific discipline and dive into thinking about why society is the way it is, and why people act and behave in a certain manner.

“It’s fun to interact with students and get them to start thinking about issues of social justice and social inequality,” said Jori. “One of the cool things about sociology is being able to expand an individual’s world view, and getting them to think about other cultures, both in the United States and outside the United States, and how society works.”

Her undergraduate time at McMurry broadened her world view and encouraged her to dedicate her efforts to the research and teaching of the science of sociology. The University that has always held a special place in her heart, will soon be even closer than before, as she begins her next chapter as an assistant professor at McMurry.  

“McMurry has made a huge impact on my life,” Jori said.  “It’s one of the reasons why I’m going back, to be a part of the family again.”

Jennifer Harper ’93

By Loretta Fulton

Jennifer harperJennifer Harper ’93 isn’t shy about giving credit to God and to people in her life for her success. That’s why it is easy for her to talk about her McMurry experience, where she got all the support she needed as a non-traditional student and was nurtured by a Christian environment.

She easily points to people at McMurry who made it possible for her to earn a bachelor’s degree in business administration/finance in 1995 when she was in her late 30s, had a full-time job, was a wife and mother.

Harper’s husband, Melvin Harper Sr., was still in the military then, having been transferred from Germany to Dyess Air Force Base in 1981. When Jennifer decided to get her degree, she didn’t have to look far. Right away, she knew McMurry was
her choice.

“They had more to offer to non-traditional students,” Harper said. “And, I liked that it was a Christian school.”

Just like today, Harper was a full-time employee of First Financial Bank in the 1990s when she enrolled at McMurry. She had started work there in September 1981 when the bank was known as First National Bank. Her first job at the bank was as a savings teller.

Harper, now 57, has steadily climbed the ladder, thanks to her college degree, and today is senior vice president for treasury management for First Financial Bank. Her duties include giving presentations to employees of the bank’s business partners, assisting with one-to-one banking programs and sales.

Harper took the long route to McMurry, but she is happy she landed here. After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School in Shreveport, La., in 1974, she attended Louisiana State University for a year and then graduated from the American Express teller training
school in Frankfort, Germany, where her husband was stationed.

Harper also graduated from a banking school at Texas Tech before enrolling in McMurry and working at First Financial Bank. Except for January 1998 to August 1999 when Harper was assistant director of financial aid at McMurry, she has been employed by First Financial Bank.

The two are in her blood, and she credits First Financial Bankshares President and CEO Scott Dueser, along with others at the bank, and people at McMurry for helping her succeed.
Harper said that while she was a student at McMurry, a network of other students and faculty was especially beneficial.

“They were very supportive,” Harper said. “The common goal was for everyone who was there to be successful.”

Among those she cited as being an excellent mentor at McMurry was Ann Liprie-Spence, who teaches in the School of Business and formerly was director of the university’s Servant Leadership Center of the Southwest. “She was very encouraging on that path,” Harper said. 

Harper also cited Dr. Phillip Egdorf, a former business professor, who led a one-week study trip to England that Harper took part in. Those people, and more, made it possible for Harper to achieve her goal against a number of odds.

“It was a challenge, but it wasn’t hard,” she said, because of the support she received. “You have to work hard for what you get.”

Her experience at McMurry was so positive and her enthusiasm so contagious that one son, Melvin Harper Jr., also went to McMurry, graduating in 1999. Another son, Justin, is a 2001 graduate of Central Michigan University.

Harper learned more than just business at McMurry. She grew up in a family that stressed religion and community. At McMurry, she found a place where both were nurtured, and she today she continues to stress both.

She serves on the board of directors of the United Way and the Abilene Education Foundation. She also is on the administrative team of Bible Study Fellowship and is a Sunday School teacher at Macedonia Baptist Church. For years, she worked with the Boys and Girls Clubs, was
on the Salvation Army board and was on a committee that helped get the All-America City status for Abilene.

“I like to give back to the community,” she said, “and I like to help people.”

She credits that attitude to her upbringing and to her church background. “The Holy Spirit leads me,” she said. “I give God all the honor and the glory.”

Ogonna Merritt ’00

By Gary Ellison

Ogonna MerrittMany times, students entering college have a plan laid out for their future - and sometimes those plans change. Ask Ogonna Merritt ’00, who came to McMurry as a communication major and ended up as a Dallas-based attorney with her own practice specializing in Social Security Disability Law.

Merritt admittedly took a different path to law school than most.

“Originally I was a communications major. I was taking a lot of English courses as my elective classes. It was my hobby - reading and writing.” 

Merritt had taken several courses from Dr. Chuck Etheridge and “he pulled me to the side one day and said I probably had enough English hours to double major.  He was right. I finished with a double major in English and communications.”

It wasn’t until Merritt’s senior year that she decided she wanted to become an attorney. After graduating from McMurry, she earned a law degree from Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in 2004. She was with the firm of Binder & Binder in Houston and Dallas before striking out on her own in 2009.

The double major was beneficial in preparing her for law school.

“I didn’t make the decision to go to law school until my senior year. It was helpful to have a variety of experiences in my academic career, not just majoring in political science like many students who attend law school.”

Merritt already had some McMurry connections when she arrived in Abilene from her hometown of Midland. 

“My uncle, Earnest Merritt ’84, and his best friend, Arthur Pertile ’83, attended McMurry, so I was familiar with Abilene and the campus.”

While at McMurry, Merritt was a star both in the classroom and on the basketball court.

An Academic All-American, Merritt also is the all-time women’s steals leader at McMurry. She was elected with the 2013 class to the University’s Athletic Hall of Honor.

She started at point guard all four years at McMurry and finished with 1,194 career points to rank No. 5 on the all-time scoring list. She is easily No. 1 in steals with 414 career thefts, including 12 in one game against Trinity, and is No. 2 in assists with 398.

During her senior season in 1999-00, the team was 24-5 and advanced to the Division III Sweet 16. Merritt led the team in scoring at 13.1 points per game and averaged 4.6 steals and 3.5 assists. A two-time American Southwest Conference West Division Defensive Player of the Year, she was second-team All-South Region and honorable mention All-American as a senior.

While excelling on the court, she was also excelling in class.

Merritt was a writing tutor at the Academic Enrichment Center, helping freshmen, especially athletes, with their writing skills.  She was also a member of Alpha Psi Alpha women’s social club and wrote for the Galleon literary magazine.
Merritt credits McMurry’s family oriented atmosphere with shaping who she is today.

“With a small school you tend to have more family oriented structure, always supportive and encouraging.”

She especially recalls the support she received from the athletic staff.

“Coach (Bev) Ball is still trying to teach me how to swim,” Merritt said laughing.

“Coach Bill Libby always had an encouraging word to get you through hard times and (athletic trainers) Doc Hadley and Janet McMurray ‘96 were always there for us.  It really was like a family.”

Cecilia Aragon ’91

By Gary Ellison

Cecilia AradonMost college graduates can look back and identify a professor who had a profound influence on their lives. Dr. Cecilia Aragon ’91 can immediately name several McMurry professors who shaped her life and career.

Dr. Aragon holds a joint appointment at the University of Wyoming as Director and Coordinator of Theatre Education and Theatre for Young Audiences in the Department of Theatre and Dance and Director of Latina/o Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Her interest in her own heritage blossomed when she took a class with Dr. Bill Short, who taught languages at McMurry for many years before his untimely passing in 2009.   

“Dr. Short encouraged me to start the Hispanic Interest Student Association (HISA) on campus. I was the founder and first president,” said Dr. Aragon. The association invited speakers to come and address students at lunch meetings. “A lot of Latina/o students came forward as a result. We found both differences and similarities and we realized that we are a pretty diverse group of Latina/o people coming from all places throughout the Southwest.”

Dr. Aragon said HISA was a great opportunity to develop and exercise her leadership skills. “I’m very grateful for that experience.” Leadership development was also a key element in her involvement in the Alpha Psi Alpha women’s social club through her relationship with former roommate and longtime friend, Dr. Cameo Harvey ’89. “Through Alpha Psi, I learned a great deal about service learning, volunteering, and outreach to the community.”

Returning to her first love – the theatre – Dr. Aragon named Professors Charlie Hukill and Dr. Philip Craik as inspirations. “They really taught me about the elements of the theatre making process – collaboration, experimentation, aesthetic perceptions, and looking at theatre as a form of cultural action - that made quite an impression on me. Like most theatre majors, I came to McMurry to act.”  She did act in several plays including a featured role in Tea House of the August Moon but found out there was a lot more to theatre than just acting. “They exposed me to all areas of theatre – history, playwriting, design, and directing among others.”

And finally, Dr. Aragon developed an intense focus and interest in Latino and Chicano literature through her association with Dr. Chuck Etheridge of the English Department.

“I was a student worker for the English Department. Dr. Etheridge found out my uncle was Rudolfo Anaya, a famous Chicano literary novelist. I never knew there was a field called Chicano literature or Latino literature and that I had a famous uncle who was a prominent writer ... we just knew him as tio Rudy.  Dr. Etheridge said I came from a very politically charged background and a very long tradition of the literary arts. He sparked my interest in looking at Latino and Chicano literature.”

Dr. Aragon began to explore this legacy on her own through her uncle’s books and other Chicano literature.  “I discovered the Chicano movement I had never heard of before. I never saw myself as part of the movement, but the politics aligned with my values and beliefs.  It took a professor to put a mirror up against me. It was a profound pivotal moment in my life that made me realize that I came from a political life and a vibrant literary tradition in my family.  At this point, I started to discover my own ethnic identity while inquiring about my Uncle Rudy’s books.”

After McMurry, Dr. Aragon taught at Haskell High School for several years and then decided to return to her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to get a master’s degree in Theatre.  “I decided on Latino theatre, poetry, and the works of Chicano writers. I was analyzing how we can bridge literature and the stage through Chicano writers creating dramatic readings and monologues for the stage.  That became my entire master’s thesis at the University of New Mexico, in addition to starting my own bilingual theatre company, La Casa Teatro.”  She followed that with a Ph.D. in Theatre from Arizona State University in 2003.

“That was my trajectory: Latino theatre and Culture, Indigenous Performances, the Chicano Movement, and Mythology and Folklore.  These are my areas of expertise,” Dr. Aragon said.  “It all started with Dr. Etheridge at McMurry. He pushed me to look at myself in the mirror.  He made the student position more than making copies, running errands, and mailing letters.  He role-modeled a lot of his own philosophy in the way he lived his own life.”

Dr. Aragon’s experiences at McMurry, especially working with Dr. Beverly Lenoir also helped her to see how to shape a life as a professor.  This had direct influences on Aragon becoming a professor and administrator at the University of Wyoming, where she teaches a range of interdisciplinary courses from U.S. Latina/o Theatre, Chicano Folklore, Mexican American Literature, Chicano History, courses on gender, sexuality, and ethnicity, introductory classes in Chicano and Latino studies, and travels with students to Spanish-speaking countries.  “Right now with the program, we offer a minor and are working to establish a major or bachelor’s degree in Latina/o Studies.”

Dr. Aragon’s choice to attend McMurry and her experiences forever changed her. “I will always appreciate what McMurry has meant in my life.”

Press Contact

Gary Ellison