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Nearly 1,600 graduate from Georgia Southern
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Amanda Nopal, 24, of Reidsville, center, whoops it up as Georgia Southern University President Brooks Keel dismisses graduates during Friday's Fall Commencement at Hanner Fieldhouse.

When Meg Heap first set foot on campus as a freshman in 1982, Georgia Southern College had about 6,000 students, and she watched the recently resurrected football team play in a high school stadium.

She graduated in 1986, despite being introduced as a 1996 alumna. Today, she is the district attorney for the Eastern Judicial Circuit, which covers Chatham County. And, of course, Georgia Southern University has more than 20,000 students, and the Eagles football team plays in Paulson Stadium.

Heap spoke at the first of three fall commencement ceremonies Friday at Hanner Fieldhouse.

“I can honestly say, No. 1, I never imagined I’d be here. I can imagine what y’all are going through today. And this is probably one of the greatest honors of my career,” Heap said of being asked to be a commencement speaker. “Now the professor was very kind. I actually graduated from Georgia Southern back in 1986, not ’96, which adds a couple of years to me.”

The speakers at the other two commencement ceremonies were insurance industry executive Jack Jennings and Russell

Toal, the director of GSU’s Center for Rural Health and Research.

In all, nearly 1,600 students received degrees during the ceremonies.

Heap credited Georgia Southern with setting her career path. She majored in sociology and originally thought she would be a social worker. But when she visited a job fair on campus during her senior year, she visited the Victim Witness Assistance Program booth. She applied for an internship  nd eventually landed a job.

“It was hard work,” she said. “I worked with victims of crime. I worked with survivors of homicide, child molestation victims, sexual assault, armed robberies. It was hard, it was challenging, it was heartbreaking, but it was rewarding. And that started me on my path.”

After seven years there, she decided she wanted to become a prosecutor and went to law school. She used her story to give the graduates advice.

“Dare to believe what is possible and instill in others the same sense of possibility,” Heap said. “It will take daring. Sometimes you feel like you’re walking it all by yourself. Optimism — you need optimism. It’s a choice. It’s so easy to become disengaged, to become cynical. It’s an easier path. But dare to explore, to discover, to dream.

“All right, this is all lovely, but that can all start tomorrow,” she concluded. “Today is y’all’s day to celebrate.”

A couple of fall graduates described Friday as “bittersweet.”

Amanda Laufer, originally from Bethlehem, Ga., received a bachelor’s in chemistry Friday. She transferred to GSU from Gainesville State College, which merged last year with North Georgia College and State University to become the University of North Georgia. She plans to go to graduate school, hopefully at the University of Texas.

“I enjoyed it immensely. I’ve had so much fun here,” she said of her time at Georgia Southern. “I got to know so many awesome people. It’s a lot of hard work, I’m not going to lie, but I still enjoyed my time here.”

Michelle Townsend is originally from Blairsville and transferred to Georgia Southern from Young Harris College. She received a bachelor’s degree in public relations and plans to start an internship next month at Savannah Riverfront Association.

“It’s more bittersweet because I’m leaving the university and growing up,” she said. “But it’s been an amazing experience, and it’s been a great day. I will miss my friends greatly in the future, and it’s been a great opportunity.”

Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.

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