June 3, 2013

Three Students Highlight SUNY Empire State College’s Central New York Center Graduation

Members of Central New York Center's class of 2013 stand to be recognized. Images are by Michael J. Okoniewski of the 2013 Central New York Center graduation.

The 2013 Central New York Center stand to be recognized.

(SYRACUSE, N.Y. – June 4, 2013) Three of SUNY Empire State College Central New York Center’s most outstanding students, Robert Blank, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot and current high school teacher, Brenda Westfall ’10, an executive with a public housing authority, and Danyell Wood, a single mother and specialist in the U.S. Army, highlighted the 2013 center graduation ceremony.

These students are among the more than 3,400 students who will earn degrees from the college this year.

“Sharing the joy and pride of our newest alumni, their faculty mentors, friends and families makes graduation the best day of the year,” said Nikki Shrimpton, dean of the college’s Central New York Center. “Robert, Brenda and Danyell have worked hard to achieve their dreams and I congratulate them for achieving their goals.

A veteran of the U.S. Armed Forces address the Central New York Center graduation. Images are by Michael J. Okoniewski of the 2013 Central New York Center graduation.

Robert Blank address fellow students.

“It is a real privilege to speak on behalf of my classmates today," said Blank. “Empire State College has prepared us for this next chapter of our lives with extraordinary finesse and skill. I want to thank my professors and my fellow students for a truly grand growth experience. It has been a joyous challenge and these are the best kind of challenges. Empire State College was truly ‘military friendly.’ From the registrar to the bookstore and the Master of Arts in Teaching office, the support was noteworthy and I appreciate it. As nontraditional students, my peers and I have risen to the challenge and climbed a mountain. We each pursued this degree because we embraced the idea that growth is better than retrenchment. I already retired from one career. I could have rested on my laurels and done either nothing or something very easy to round out my work life. Instead, I pursued the challenging and rewarding life of a teacher.”

Images by Michael J. Okoniewski of the 2013 Central New York Center graduation.

Brenda Westfall at the 2013 graduation.

“I have done extremely well in my profession without a degree, however for me the lack of higher education had always been a missing link," said Westfall. "I began this journey and pursued this degree for my own personal reasons. For me it was something that had been missing and a goal that I had longed to achieve. I now recognize there may be additional opportunities afforded to me as a result of completing my degree. Today I celebrate the achievement of this long-awaited goal and I thank the numerous people that stood behind me and held me up along the way. To my children and partner, families and friends, coworkers and colleagues, my mentors, faculty and the staff at Empire State College, thank you for supporting and believing in me.”

Images are by Michael J. Okoniewski of the 2013 Central New York Center graduation.

Danyell Wood

“When I arrived at Fort Drum, I was encouraged by my commander, platoon sergeant and squad leader to enroll in college classes because they know how important it is to continue planning for your future whether it is in the military or in the civilian sector,” said Wood. “The education experience at Empire State College was extremely challenging. But the college’s mentorship program was one of the two most significant factors that allowed me to overcome those challenges and stand here before you today. As a nontraditional student and a working parent, I would not have been able to finish my degree without a mentor who was there for me every step of the way. Like the mentoring program, independent study was also very important in helping me to earn my degree. When I first heard about this program at Empire State, it was an unfamiliar concept. The independent study method is the most flexible educational method that is suited for many types of nontraditional students. This is how Empire State College has made me successful and I am very grateful for the support of my mentors and the staff of the college.”

About Robert Blank

Before retiring as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Blank logged 3,500 flying hours in fighter, trainer and reconnaissance aircraft. He fulfilled assignments worldwide and capped his career as commander of the Adirondack Air-to-Ground Range at Fort Drum, N.Y.

Blank then began a second career as a high school teacher and will be awarded his Master of Arts in Teaching at this year’s commencement. Currently, concluding his second year, he teaches earth science, physics and environmental science at Harrisville Central School.

Blank resides in Carthage, N.Y., with Polly, his wife of 29 years. He has two daughters, and one granddaughter.

About Brenda Westfall

For the past 10 years, Westfall has been the executive director of the Ithaca Housing Authority.

She began her career in public housing in 1989 and has continually advanced to positions of increasing responsibility and authority. Westfall serves on the board of directors and chairs the scholarship program for the New York State Housing Authority Directors Association.

On the national level, she serves as a trustee, a member of the professional development committee and chairs the Bollinger Scholarship Program for the Public Housing Authority Directors Association.

Westfall earned an A.S. in business, management and economics from the college in 2010 and today will receive her B.S. in business management and economics with a concentration in business administration.

Westfall resides in Ithaca and attended the recent graduations of her two sons from Ithaca College.

About Danyell Wood

Danyell Wood is a specialist with the Vermont National Guard and is currently in the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Drum, N.Y., where she is recovering from injuries and going through the process of being medically retired from the military.

A single mother whose first priority is her children, Wood has earned her associate in interdisciplinary studies and is now working to earn her bachelor’s.

She has been nominated for a student achievement award by her GoArmyEd education counselor for her academic achievements.

About SUNY Empire State College

SUNY Empire State College was established in 1971 to offer adult learners the opportunity to earn associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the State University of New York.

In addition to awarding credit for prior college-level learning, the college pairs each student with a faculty mentor who supports that student throughout his or her college career. Students engage in guided independent study and course work onsite, online or a combination of both, which provides the flexibility for students to learn at the time, place and pace they choose.

The college serves more than 20,000 students worldwide at more than 35 locations in New York state and online. Its 66,000 alumni are active in their communities as entrepreneurs, politicians, business professionals, artists, nonprofit agency employees, teachers, veterans and active military, union members and more. More information about the college is available here.


Media contact: David Henahan, director of communications

518-587-2100, ext. 2918


518-321-7038 (after hours and on weekends)

Images are by Michael J. Okoniewski.