The Class of 2019 looks back at the past four years of tremendous growth, a historic name change and the future of Augusta University
Less than four years ago, political science and international studies major Grace Welsh remembers sitting in an American history class at then-Georgia Regents University and seeing a huge smile spread across the face of her professor.
“He walked to the front of the class and put a cartoon up,” Welsh said. “It was a picture of a jaguar decked out in Augusta University stuff.”
Welsh, a 21-year-old Augusta native, understood the significance of the University System of Georgia Board of Regents unanimously voting on Sept. 15, 2015, to rename the school from Georgia Regents University to Augusta University.
“I will always remember that day because my professor was so excited,” Welsh said, adding her sister graduated from Augusta State University about a decade before she enrolled. “Just to see that kind of excitement from your professors made you realize that you are a part of history. And that excitement and pride is passed down to you. Also, it was so nice to see the community rally around the school again.”
As Welsh is preparing to graduate from Augusta University with honors, she can’t help but look back on her college career and all the growth the university has experienced since she first enrolled almost four years ago.
“To be the first graduating class that started when the university changed its name is special,” said Welsh, a senior from Pamplin College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. “Now, we’ve gotten to be Augusta University students all the way through. We are the first ones. And to see how much the campus is growing and how big these incoming classes of freshmen are is really exciting.”
Welsh is proud to say that not only does she have an older sister who graduated from the university, but also her younger brother is on track to graduate as part of the Class of 2021 at Augusta University.
“When I was up in Washington, D.C., people would ask, ‘Where do you go to school?’ And when I told them Augusta University, they’d say, ‘Oh, you mean the school that has all of the cyber? Didn’t y’all just build that new Nathan Deal campus?’” Welsh said. “I think our campus is becoming known for all the different opportunities here and not just the fact that it is in the same city as the Augusta National.”
Jaguar Nation begins to grow
LeDarius Scott, a senior political science major who has been the Student Government Association president for the past two years, also vividly recalls the day Augusta University changed its name.
“I remember we were sitting in class and I was taking a history class from Dr. Bill Bloodworth, who is, of course, our former college president,” said Scott, who is also graduating this week. “And I remember he had a brightly colored flip phone. It was either a red or pink flip phone and he got a text. He got really excited and announced, ‘We changed our name!’ And, as a freshman, I remember thinking, ‘We can do that as a university? Is that possible?’”
While it was a huge surprise to many of the freshmen that year, Scott said the student body was swept up in the excitement.
“We definitely have a lot more pride now,” he said. “I remember that transition and seeing the billboards and signs change on campus and around town. It was a special time and I’m happy to say that Augusta University is here to stay.”
Paul Kelton, a 22-year-old biology major who will graduate from Augusta University this week, recalls he was working at the local restaurant chain, WifeSaver, when the Board of Regents voted to change the university’s name.
“I worked at WifeSaver for more than three years and I remember when Augusta University switched the name,’” Kelton said. “Everyone was so excited because we were giving [signs] out for free when that happened.”
The entire experience helped him see how important Augusta University is to the community, Kelton said.
“I’ll be honest, I initially came to Augusta University with the intention of transferring to UGA,” Kelton said, referring to the University of Georgia in Athens. “I didn’t know much about Augusta University. But after I got here, I got involved on campus through my fraternity, Delta Chi, and the Student Government Association. Then, I was like, ‘Why would I leave?’
“There are great professors here and, by the end of my freshman year, I knew every professor in the biology department. And you know what? They knew me by my first name, too. That’s something you don’t get at any other university.”
The fact that Augusta University has such a positive president in Dr. Brooks Keel has also had a tremendous impact, Kelton said.
“The pride aspect of this school has completely changed,” Kelton said. “Every time I hear Dr. Keel speak, he always ends the speech with, ‘Go Jags!’ Just little things like that really help a lot.”
Leading Augusta University into the future
When Keel looks back at the history of Augusta University, he understands that the various name changes prior to him becoming president deeply influenced the university.
There’s no denying the fact that the GRU name had been a point of contention in Augusta since the Regents consolidated Augusta State and Georgia Health Sciences universities and named the new institution Georgia Regents in 2012, he said.
“The variety of name changes, not just this last one, had a huge impact on the university,” Keel said. “Of course, people focus on the recent name because it was an emotional change that people had to go through. But the changes that we’ve gone through and that we’re still going through goes back before the actual consolidation of Georgia Health Sciences University, which used to be the Medical College of Georgia, with Augusta State University.”
But the merger had to happen in order to make Augusta University a stronger institution, Keel said.
“I think for a long time, we as a community and we as a university were just kind of stuck,” he said. “Changing the name to Augusta University along with all the branding that we did associated with that, it has been amazing. It has unified virtually everyone around a common vision.”
Keel sees nothing but progress and growth ahead for Augusta University’s future.
“The analogy I like to use is that we’ve been for so long driving down the road looking in the rearview mirror and now we are driving down the road looking out the windshield,” Keel said. “Everybody has come together on that. And the fact that this class represents the last class that was personally impacted by name change and some of that turmoil is extremely important.”
The Class of 2019 is a special part of the legacy that is Augusta University, he said.
“This next group of freshmen coming in, it will have always been Augusta University to them. And that’s a huge turning point,” he said. “I think it further cements this idea that we are all one university, we are moving ahead and that one university is Augusta University.”
Attracting students from across Georgia and beyond
Suvarsha Sura, a pre-med student who came to Augusta University from Alpharetta, Georgia, said she really didn’t mind the name Georgia Regents University when she first enrolled. She was more interested in the outstanding medical research opportunities the university offered.
“I was perfectly fine with GRU, but I honestly think Augusta University put the school on the map. It kind of gave the university a sense of location,” Sura said.
Sura, who will also be graduating this week, plans to attend medical school in the fall.
“One of my favorite things about Augusta University is the emphasis that the university puts on research because, any other school you go to, they wouldn’t really push you to do research or push you to apply yourself,” she said. “But this school really gets you out there.”
In fact, Sura is grateful to Melissa Knapp, coordinator for the Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship, for encouraging her to engage in research over the past several years.
“You know how when you start swimming as a child and they throw you into the middle of the pool sometimes,” Sura said, laughing. “It’s kind of like that. I’m glad that they pushed us to do research because that’s what really made me realize, I can do this.”
Last year, Sura worked on research dealing with traumatic brain injuries in pediatric patients. She used mice to study how traumatic brain injuries could cause depression later in a child’s life.
“Basically, we are working with zebrafish to analyze a cancer called glioblastomas,” Sura said, explaining that a glioblastoma is one of the most aggressive cancers that begin within the brain. “It causes about 13,000 deaths each year in this country.”
Recently, zebrafish have emerged as a powerful model organism for studying cancer because it is easy to introduce genetic changes in them, she said.
“The really special thing about zebrafish is when you work with them, you can actual develop a transparent model so you can see everything that is happening in their bodies and all of their reactions,” she said. “And I didn’t realize this when I first started, but the zebrafish originated from India, just like me, so that was kind of cool to see me linking back to my heritage. Now, I hope to stay here in Augusta and go to the Medical College of Georgia so I can continue working on this important research.”
A name to remember
Much like Sura, Emilee Mikulsky, a senior biology major from Savannah, never thought twice about the former name, Georgia Regents University.
“I was not expecting the name change whatsoever,” Mikulsky said, laughing. “I think the change has been a lot better for the university. I came here because of the rigorous science courses that the university offers, as well as the physician assistant program that is here.”
But over the past four years, Mikulsky has also been active in her sorority, Alpha Delta Pi, and the Student Government Association, and she has seen her fellow students truly embrace the new name.
“I remember when they first did the T-shirt giveaways with the new logos,” Mikulsky said. “Everyone wanted to wear those shirts. First of all, they were really nice shirts made of good quality material. The logo change was also a lot better and I think it was well thought out. The students immediately wanted to show their school pride.”
Augusta native Chris Forde, a 24-year-old political science major, was in school at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida, when Augusta University changed its name.
“I remember when they changed the name. I heard all about it,” Forde said, chuckling. “Personally, I think solidifying the name to Augusta University was a pivotal moment in our history because we were able to become a solid part of the community here in Augusta.”
Forde, who transferred to Augusta University in the summer of 2016, could immediately see the immense pride students had for the new name. As a result, he felt comfortable at his new college and got involved in the campus by becoming a Pamplin Ambassador, working as a resident assistant and joining the Jaguar Production Crew, better known as The CREW.
“Augusta University was an easy choice,” he said. “For me, there is a positive correlation between student engagement and success. The more I am engaged outside of the classroom, the more I get ideas from other people and the more I can build upon what I’ve learned in the classroom.”
This week, Forde will become the first person from his immediate family to graduate from college.
“It’s definitely going to be surreal. Not everybody can say they walked across the stage, got a degree and received a leadership certificate,” he said, adding that he is planning to enroll in Augusta University’s master of arts in intelligence and security studies program to further his education. “I’m extremely proud of Augusta University and I believe we can now make Augusta a true college town. We can help Augusta thrive with cyber and the medical community and make it a hub that people want to come to and a name to remember.”