For the Finns and Wests, Commencement is a family affair
May 15, 2013
Contact: Chloe Kennedy, News and New Media Writer
As longtime staff members of Maryville College, Bonnie West and Bonnie Finn have celebrated the graduation of hundreds of students.
This Sunday, after years of hard work, they’ll celebrate their own graduation – as well as the graduation of their children from the 194-year-old liberal arts college.
Bonnie West ‘13, an administrative assistant in the College’s Division of Education, will graduate with her daughter, Maggie West ’13, and Bonnie Finn ’13, an administrative assistant in the College’s Center for Campus Ministry, will graduate with her son, Thomas Finn ’13.
Bonnie Finn, 52, started working at Maryville College in 2007 with the hope of using the College’s tuition benefit for her children.
When her children decided to go elsewhere, she began to think about using it for herself. Finn, who spent four years in the Army, always knew she wanted to complete her bachelor’s degree at some point.
In the summer of 2008, she decided to enroll in classes at Maryville College. A music lover, she decided to major in music and minor in business and organizational management.
Thomas Finn, 23, graduated from Maryville High School in 2008 and enrolled at a larger state university. He decided he didn’t like the “big school atmosphere” and enrolled at Maryville College as a junior in 2010, majoring in environmental studies and minoring in music.
“Maryville College is a great, affordable, close option,” Thomas said. “I love the campus.”
Both Bonnie and Thomas said they have enjoyed the small class size that Maryville College offers. In fact, they’ve taken a few classes together.
“When Thomas told me he decided to take German, I said ‘You realize that you’ll be in my class,’” Bonnie said. “We did homework together for German and economics, and we kept each other on task. I definitely wouldn’t have done as well in economics without Thomas!”
“Studying together was fun,” Thomas added. “It was sort of like a competition when we studied together in economics.”
During their time at the College, the two have also bonded over music, playing in the Maryville College Pep Band together – Bonnie played the cowbell and Thomas played drums. Bonnie is also a member of the Maryville College-Community Concert Band.
Attending Maryville College has been “an awesome challenge and experience,” Bonnie said, and being both a staff member and student has allowed her to experience different roles on campus.
“I know a lot of people on campus, and I feel very connected,” Bonnie said.
She has not only been connected on campus, but she has excelled in her studies. She will be inducted into the Alpha Gamma Sigma honor society on Saturday, and her Senior Study, titled “Kurt Weill and Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Composers of Two Worlds,” was selected as an exemplary Senior Study and is now part of the library’s collection.
Larry Smithee, former associate professor of music, served as her Senior Study advisor and called her work “a good example of graduate-level work created by an undergraduate student.”
This fall, Bonnie will actually begin graduate work at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she will pursue two master’s programs in library science and musicology. Eventually, she hopes to become a music librarian and teach music history at a small, liberal arts college.
Thomas said he is still figuring out his options for the future, but he is looking forward to having time to do volunteer work and explore work in his field of study. Last summer, Thomas interned at Liles Acres Organic Farm in Maryville, and he said the experience gave him “a better understanding of where food comes from and where it should come from.” From the experience, he said he feels moved to help develop sustainable solutions in agriculture.
“I intend to seek out opportunities where my passions for agriculture and the environment can be harmonious and hopefully develop a career for the future,” he said.
For Bonnie, who is leaving Maryville College this summer, her experience has come full circle.
“It’s so funny to think that I started working here in order to get a tuition benefit for him, but it ended up benefitting me tremendously,” she said.
Bonnie West, who earned her associate’s degree from Pellissippi State Community College in 1990, always knew she eventually wanted to go back to school for her bachelor’s degree.
She began working at Maryville College in 1999 and decided to start taking classes in the fall of 2005, when the College’s tuition benefit for employees changed to allow part-time staff to participate.
“When I began, I couldn’t see that it would lead to a degree,” said Bonnie, 55. “But I thought, ‘If I’m going to do the work, I might as well get the degree.’”
Maggie West, 30, started at Maryville College in 2010, after transferring from a larger state university. As an older student with a job and a daughter of her own, Maggie doesn’t fit the mold of the typical 18- to 22-year-old college student, but she quickly found that she fit right in and felt that she was in the right place.
“I got into the best orientation group made up of nontraditional, transfer and international students, and we all just bonded,” Maggie said. “What impresses me about Maryville College is the quality of the students – when I’m in class with 20- or 21-year-olds, they blow me away with how much insight they have.”
As a psychology major, Maggie hasn’t had any classes with Bonnie, who is majoring in English literature and minoring in art. They’ve enjoyed regular visits in Bonnie’s Anderson Hall office – they joke that they wouldn’t see each other often if they didn’t attend the same college.
For Bonnie, being a staff member and a student gives her a unique perspective and allows her to meet other people on campus.
“It’s nice for me, because in my job, all I see is education students, so being a student allows me to get out of the office and meet other students,” she said. “Plus, I get to know more than one graduating class, since I’ve been taking classes for so long.”
As the daughter of a longtime staff member, Maggie admits that she is often known on campus as “Bonnie’s daughter.”
“People will look at my last name and say ‘Wait – who’s your mom?’ or ‘I had class with your mom,’” said Maggie, who plans to enroll in a Ph.D. program for counseling. “Because there are two ‘Bonnies’ on campus, Thomas (Finn) is asked if he is the son of my mom, and I’m asked if I am Bonnie Finn's daughter. We both have our ‘other Mom’ on campus!”
The two Wests, who will be inducted into the Alpha Gamma Sigma honor society on Saturday, have been each other’s built-in support system at Maryville College. In fact, Bonnie said she would have taken another semester, but the desire to graduate together pushed her to finish early.
“We’ve gone this far together, so we might as well finish together,” Bonnie said. “Plus, I’ve had senioritis for three years.”
“I might have threatened her, too,” Maggie joked.
This Sunday, Bonnie and Maggie plan to walk together when they receive their diplomas, and both said it will be an emotional day.
“It makes me very proud,” said Maggie, who credits her parents with emphasizing the importance of education throughout her life. “My parents have been in school in one form or another since I was born. It wasn’t ‘Are you going to college?’ – it was ‘Where are you going to go to college?’”
She hopes it rubs off on her 10-year-old daughter, Jewell, too.
“She already wants to attend Maryville College and live in the dorm,” Maggie said, laughing.
Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2014 semester was 1,213.