Three Pierce College alumni who are making a difference in other’s lives were honored on April 11 at the 31st Distinguished Alumni Celebration.
Honorable Garold Johnson, Shota Nakama and Sgt. First Class Leroy Petry were recipients of the 2012 outstanding alumni award.
Thirteen Pierce College students were invited to attend in hopes that they would be inspired by the stories and see the potential that they can aspire to become. In addition to the students, many faculty, staff and administration from both campuses were in attendance to support and honor the alumni.
The banquet began with Chancellor Michelle Johnson explaining the significant role that a community college plays in transfer education.
“Thirty percent of those who have graduated with a bachelor’s degree started their education at a community college,” Michelle Johnson said.
The three alumni that were honored are examples of what happens when possibilities are realized. Pierce College started recognizing outstanding alumni in 1981 and they have continued ever since.
The first distinguished alumnus to be recognized was Pierce County Superior Court Judge Gary Johnson. Johnson attended Pierce College Fort Steilacoom (then Clover Park Community College) from 1970-1972.
Gary Johnson explained that he wasn’t an immediate success.
“My first two classes were both incompletes,” Gary Johnson said. “It gave me the opportunity to experience not succeeding and, after that, I actually did quite well”.
Gary Johnson added that college is not designed for geniuses, but rather people with average intelligence and people with tenacity.
After graduating from Pierce, Gary Johnson transferred to the University of Puget Sound and received his bachelors in history. He had a job as a juvenile corrections officer, which peaked his interest to begin law school at UPS. After graduating law school, Gary Johnson began his work as an attorney.
On April 18 last year, Gary Johnson was sworn in as a Pierce County Superior Court Judge.
Gary Johnson stated how crucial the role of community college was in his life. He further explained that there are a lot of things in people’s lives that make a difference and that they remember as milestones and turning points.
“I could easily have ended up somewhere else,” Gary Johnson said. “Community college is an absolutely necessary rung in my life. I couldn’t have done it otherwise.”
The next distinguished alumnus to be honored was musician, producer, arranger and translator Shota Nakama. Nakama attended Pierce College and earned his GED as an international education student in 2003.
After graduating from Pierce College, Nakama transferred to Pacific Lutheran University until 2005. He then transferred to Berklee College of Music in Boston where he earned a bachelor’s degree in film scoring.
A few years later, in 2011, Nakama graduated from the Boston Conservatory earning his master’s degree in classical guitar performance.
Between his college careers, Nakama founded Video Game Orchestra, a group of classically trained musicians that perform contemporary arrangements of video game music.
The group began performing in 2008 and has given videogame fans a newfound excitement of live orchestral performance.
Nakama has composed scores for films and has recorded and arranged projects throughout Germany, Japan and Taiwan.
For Nakama, he said that Pierce College was the best experience. It built his foundation and prepared him for the real world. Nakama explained that there is no substitute for the time he had at Pierce.
“My time at Pierce College shines the most,” Nakama said. “It was so incredibly fun.”
He explained how he still applies what he learned at college on a regular basis.
“This place is so special for me,” Nakama said. “Every day I’m so grateful. School made me pursue my goal.”
The final alumnus to be recognized was U.S. Army Ranger, Medal of Honor Recipient Leroy Petry. Petry attended Pierce College through the military program at Joint Base Lewis McChord. The classes Petry took were flexible around his military schedule and his instructors understood the challenges of military life in the midst of wartime.
Petry sees himself as a husband, father, Army Ranger and someone who did what he could to save his brothers.
Petry has been deployed eight times since 2001. In Afghanistan in 2008, Petry picked up a live grenade to save two men in his unit. Before he could release the grenade, it exploded, leaving him without his right hand.
Even in the midst of a difficult time, Petry made light of what could be seen as a dark time in his life.
He described his encounter with President Barack Obama when receiving his medal of honor. Petry noticed Obama was left-handed when he signed his certificate and asked him if had any tips for not smudging the ink since Petry was new to writing with his left hand.
Petry is the second living recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor for actions since the Vietnam War. He continues to serve his country at JBLM as a liaison between wounded soldiers and their families. He is able to relate and connect to wounded soldiers and gives them hope and encouragement to do the best they can do.
Petry hopes to one day open up his own business after he retires and he plans to continue to take college classes online to improve his education.
“In college, we all had something in common—to further our education,” Petry said. “When you have strong roots, you can do great things.”
Petry went on to say that teachers are extremely underappreciated because knowledge truly is power.
“I will always speak in high regards for Pierce College,” Petry said.
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