Graduate finds hope behind jail walls

Renee Brinkly for Colonel 2014
With her big heart and no-nonsense attitude, Renee Brinkley (BGS ’03) tries to reform inmates in her role as head administrator of corrections for Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office.

A former beauty products businesswoman with a bright smile and warm, welcoming demeanor, Renee Brinkley (BGS ’03) is not the person you’d expect to find running the parish’s correction facilities.

Lafourche’s head administrator of corrections for the past three years, Brinkley oversees the parish jail in Thibodaux — an overcrowded, aging facility housing up to 245 inmates.

At its best, the jail is an unpleasant place to spend a day. At its worst, it can be downright dangerous. But where many people see a place of punishment, Brinkley sees opportunity. She views inmates as people who are facing not only the biggest challenges of their lives but who are also being presented with a chance to change their path.

“Whether great or small, we have an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life every day,” Brinkley says.

The first woman promoted to major in the Lafourche Parish Sheriff ’s Office, Brinkley has worked in law enforcement for 14 years, but her path wasn’t always a clear one. She initially struggled with devoting herself to her studies and deciding on a major, and she left Nicholls before finishing her degree. Brinkley later returned and earned her general studies degree after University College Dean Al Davis convinced her that having diverse interests wasn’t a bad thing.

“He really put it together for me when he said, ‘Renee, it’s okay that you want to be Miss America and the president and a veterinarian and a counselor,’” Brinkley recalls. “For the first time I really felt like I was okay being a person who was interested in so many different things.”

A Thibodaux resident for much of her life, Brinkley began her career a long way from the jailhouse — selling bath and beauty products and guiding businesses for Neill Corporation.

When the company was bought out, Brinkley found herself at a crossroads. She ran into Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre at a football game, and he convinced her to work for him as executive director of Weed and Seed, a federally sponsored program that aims to prevent and reduce crime in targeted neighborhoods.

“Working in my community and working with people was always my passion, so, for me, it was the perfect job,” she says.

After watching Brinkley navigate tough neighborhoods, her coworkers suggested she undergo formal police officer training. Having never touched a gun before, Brinkley recalls her training as “shocking” and “life-changing.” Leaning on what she learned at the academy, at Nicholls and in her graduate program at the University of New Orleans, she steadily rose through the ranks, serving as captain of the personnel division, major of the civil department and finally head administrator of corrections.

Running Lafourche Parish’s corrections system takes a firm attitude and the ability to tell people the truth, even when they don’t want to hear it. But the job also takes empathy, something Brinkley has a lot of.

“I have a huge heart, and sometimes I think that’s my downfall,” she says. “I go home and I worry about the people I’ve met, and I pray for people.”

That’s especially tough in the corrections system, where the goal is to reform inmates in hopes that they’ll change their lives and never return. In reality, many end up back behind bars.

“When I see the revolving door, I can’t help but question myself and say, where did we fail? I always want to know if I could have done something more,” she says.

Not everyone’s going to jail forever, she adds. Ultimately, many inmates are coming back into the community. They could be your neighbor, your mother’s neighbor, a co-worker or someone who does your home repairs.

“Wouldn’t you want to know we did something to make them better?” she says.

While Brinkley has never felt unaccepted by her mostly male peers in law enforcement, it took time for her to learn that she didn’t have to change her personality or harden herself. She’s kept her big heart intact, even if it means crying at drug court graduation, which celebrates drug offenders who reach sobriety.

“I was so proud of the graduates,” she says. “For some of them it took years, but they finally beat their addiction and that’s something to celebrate. So yeah I get excited and I cry — I learned a long time ago that it’s okay for me to just be who I am.”

— Written by Nikki Buskey, marketing/communications specialist

This article originally appeared in the spring 2014 issue of The Colonel alumni magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

We’re all in the mood for a melody

Joel.JambonComputer science graduate Joel Jambon (BS ’89) finds second career as a piano man at Pat O’Brien’s

The unmistakable melody of “Brown Eyed Girl” drifts through Pat O’Brien’s Piano Bar, where fruity rum punches crowd copper-topped tables and memories made by millions of locals and tourists thickly coat the walls. Up on stage, seated behind one of two polished baby grand pianos, Joel Jambon (BS ’89) taps his left foot as his fingers build momentum during the spirited chorus.

Once a burned-out computer programmer looking for a more fulfilling career path, Jambon can hardly believe his luck. Four nights a week, he now clocks into work at perhaps the most legendary bar in New Orleans.

“Playing the piano is what I would do to enjoy myself at home, so to be able to earn a living doing this is just the best thing ever,” says Jambon, a piano player at Pat O’s since 2006. “To do what you love is like not working.”

A Golden Meadow native who masks his Cajun accent remarkably well, Jambon discovered his musical talent at age 11, when he began taking organ lessons. Barely a teenager, he landed his first gig of sorts at Our Lady of Prompt Succor, a Catholic church just a short bike ride from his home. He later picked up the trombone while at South Lafourche High School and continued playing during his freshman year at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

But despite his passion for music, Jambon had been set on pursuing a computer science degree since the ninth grade.

“The Apple II had just come out, and I was intrigued by all the computer stuff floating around,” Jambon recalls. “Computers were poised to keep exploding, and I thought, That’s a growing field I should be a part of.”

Music continued to fill a large chunk of the computer science major’s time, especially after he transferred to Nicholls in 1987. Jambon joined the KNSU radio station staff first as a DJ and then as program director, responsible for training staffers and buying records.

“Sometimes, I’d sneak into the piano practice room in the music building, which they thankfully kept unlocked,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in there playing just to relax myself. I considered changing my major a couple of times, but I stuck with the safer career choice.”

Before graduation, Jambon secured a programming job with Electronic Data Systems (EDS) in the Detroit area, but even after five years there, he never acclimated to the snowy conditions. Slowly, Jambon migrated back south, where he ultimately was hired by Hibernia Bank in New Orleans to do Y2K programming.

IMG_0330“I clearly remember attending a summer program in the early ’80s, and they told us, ‘There’s this Y2K problem that y’all are going to have to fix one day.’ I thought it would be fixed long before, but no, it was waiting for me in 1999, and I spent 18 months doing Y2K coding and testing. It was a slog.”

Just as the worn-down Jambon began considering a career change, his mother unexpectedly passed away.

“I had been dissatisfied with my work for some time, and my mother’s death made me think, When I die one day, don’t I want to say that I played more music and did less programming?” says Jambon, who left Hibernia in 2001. “I wanted to do what made me happy, and I thought, What better place than New Orleans to try to make a living as a musician.”

Jambon applied at Howl at the Moon, a dueling-piano bar chain once located on Bourbon Street, and although he had little experience in singing or entertaining a crowd, he got his first professional gig.

“I didn’t even know ‘Piano Man,’ the No. 1 requested song,” he says. “That’s how green I was.”

The new job pushed the introverted Jambon out of his comfort zone. Not only did he have to memorize the 150 songs in Howl at the Moon’s repertoire, but he also was expected to jump on the pianos, tell jokes and pump up the crowd between songs.

Just as he was finding his groove, Hurricane Katrina swept it away. Howl at the Moon never reopened, and when Jambon returned to New Orleans, jobs — especially for musicians — were scarce. Even the esteemed Pat O’Brien’s, then open only three days a week, wasn’t hiring. Jambon kept afloat by playing one-time gigs, including a month-long “pity job” at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop.

In the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras 2006, Pat O’s announced that it was reopening seven days a week and needed piano players to entertain the anticipated crowds. Jambon auditioned, and the manager agreed to try him out for a week.

“He never actually told me I had the job; he just kept putting me on the schedule,” Jambon recalls. “After a couple of months, I thought, I guess I got the job.”

IMG_0393For Jambon and most others lucky enough to land a spot on the coveted piano bar staff, the job is one they plan to keep until retirement. There’s no mistaking that the work can be tough. Musicians work in teams of four with each pair playing every other hour from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. on weekends and 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. on weekdays. And, of course, there are the intoxicated customers who occasionally cause trouble. But the job pays well and is revered. In the 18th century building on St. Peter that houses Pat O’Brien’s, live music has been a staple since 1942, and some of the piano players have been on the staff for more than 30 years — continuing to perform well into their 80s.

“To be a part of that long tradition is amazing for a musician because, as I learned, clubs come and go,” Jambon says. “But this place and its reputation have endured. We can take more chances than other dueling-piano bars because we have a legacy of players who have been here for decades. They remember older songs when they were new hits.”

Using the bar’s WiFi and a laptop set atop the piano, Jambon can look up the lyrics and play by ear any song he’s heard at least five times. Requests range from the overplayed favorites to the obscure stumpers. Although Jambon lights up when he receives requests for old standards by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, he doesn’t shy away from the more modern picks. He even does piano renditions of hip-hop favorites such as “Gin and Juice,” “Baby Got Back” and “Ice Ice Baby.” As requests for new songs he doesn’t know pile up, he adds them to his “to-learn” list, expanding his repertoire to meet the crowd’s demands.

When he isn’t presiding over a piano at Pat O’s, Jambon enjoys quiet time at home reading, surfing the Internet and playing more music. Recently, he purchased an organ, which takes him back to those pre-teen performances at the Golden Meadow church. Of course, his musical venue has changed quite a bit since then, but he says the gigs aren’t entirely different.

“In both cases, we wanted the crowd to sing along.”

— Written by Stephanie Verdin, publications coordinator

This article originally appeared in the spring 2014 issue of The Colonel alumni magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

5 questions with Joshua Hollenbeck

Nocturne 2013From playing across the seven seas to teaching at Nicholls, Joshua Hollenbeck has had a globe-trotting musical career that’s taken him from Tobago to Thibodaux. Now in his third year as an instructor of music and assistant director of bands at Nicholls, Hollenbeck directs the Pride of Nicholls Marching Band, the 6th Man Basketball Band and the Jazz Ensemble. Before his career in education, he cruised the world with Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Carnival cruise lines — sometimes spending as much as seven months at sea while performing in the premier show band and visiting countless locations in North and South America, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and India.


»»Hometown: Tampa, Fla.

»»Instruments: Saxophone, flute and clarinet

»»Education: Bachelor of Music Education from Florida State University, Master of Music from University of South Florida

»»Favorite bands: Earth, Wind and Fire; Tower of Power; and Chicago

»»Travel log: Visited 28 countries on six continents

»»Life on land: Lives in Raceland with his wife, Ali Hagan, and their two dogs

1. What was it like working on a cruise ship?

I played in the show band, which is usually made up of college-educated and trained musicians. These are guys at the peak of professionalism because we have to be well-versed in different musical styles and do a lot of sight reading. Living on the ship is very much like living in a freshman dorm. You’re usually paired up with someone else who does the same job as you, and it is very close quarters. The best thing is the travel. In the same week, I saw the Roman Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel and the Parthenon.

2. What’s the worst part of the job?

Things happen at the same time every day on a cruise ship, so your day is very planned. You don’t get the kind of freedom and uncertainty most musicians are used to on land. That and the food in the crew mess hall.

3. How do you select the music the Nicholls band plays at games and halftime?

I write all the arrangements myself. I play in a few cover bands in the area, and that gives me inspiration. I adapt popular music and stick to things that are fun to keep the crowd engaged.

4. Who are your musical inspirations?

Dean Donataccio, my high school band director — he taught us first and foremost you have to be musical — and my collegiate saxophone instructor at Florida State University, Patrick Meighan. But most of all, my parents. When I played in high school, they weren’t pushy, but they knew this could be something for me and they supported me.

5. Who is your dream band to work with?

I would love to work with the Marsalis family, Harry Connick Jr. or Rebirth Brass Band.

— Written by Nikki Buskey, marketing/communications specialist

This article originally appeared in the fall 2013 issue of Voila! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

Wetlands warrior

Kerry St. Pe Portrait

Story Update: Nicholls graduate Kerry St. Pé will retire this summer after leading the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, housed at Nicholls, for 16 years. He was recently named an honorary member of the American Society of Landscape Architects for dedicating his career to protecting the Louisiana coastline.

When the Deepwater Horizon rig began gushing gallons of oil into the Gulf, Kerry St. Pé (BS ’73) took it personally. The Port Sulfur native’s lifework has been advocating for south Louisiana’s coastal communities, where his family has lived since 1760. As a former regional coordinator for the state’s oil-spill response team, St. Pé was not timid when national media asked his opinion on how to limit damage to the wetlands.

“My degree in marine biology allowed me to be an advocate for people in the place I love — Barataria- Terrebonne,” St. Pé says. “Thank you to Nicholls for teaching me to fight for the things I believe in.”

The battle has been a long one for St. Pé, director of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP). After graduating from Nicholls, he worked for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the state Department of Environmental Quality before becoming BTNEP director in 1997. Regarded as one of the nation’s top wetlands experts, St. Pé brings fishermen, oil industry executives and politicians together to preserve the environment, jobs and the way of life along the coast.

“His passion for saving Louisiana’s wetlands has been a big reason why coastal restoration has gained attention on a national scale,” says Dr. David Boudreaux, executive director of the Nicholls Foundation. “If one day in the not-so-distant future, the inhabitants of the Bayou Region are able to say that we succeeded in rebuilding the wetlands, we will owe a huge debt of gratitude to Kerry.”

— Written by Stephanie Detillier Verdin, publications coordinator

This article originally appeared in the spring 2012 issue of The Colonel alumni magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

When your son becomes your patient

Dr. Ahmad Alexander (BS ’06) is an audiologist by day and night. At home,he and his wife, Dekeshia (BS ’07), work closely with Elijah, pictured above, who has a severe hearing loss in his left ear. Photo courtesy of Abilene Reporter-News
Dr. Ahmad Alexander (BS ’06) is an audiologist by day and night. At home, he and his wife, Dekeshia (BS ’07), work closely with Elijah, pictured above, who has a severe hearing loss in his left ear. Photo courtesy of Abilene Reporter-News

Dr. Ahmad Alexander (BS ’06) knew that his own childhood had inspired his audiology career path. But little did he know that his decision would impact his son’s childhood, too.

A Vacherie native, Ahmad underwent three years of speech therapy after being hit by a truck while trying to cross the street when he was 5 years old.

Years later, after serving in the U.S. National Guard, he enrolled at Nicholls and started searching for the right major.

“As I was touring the speech clinic on campus, it brought back memories,” Ahmad recalls. “I thought that pursuing this career would allow me to give back in a way that others helped me.”

After graduating from the Nicholls communicative disorders program, Ahmad started the audiology graduate program at LSU-Shreveport and married Dekeshia Anderson (BS ’07), a fellow Colonel he met through the Baptist Christian Ministry.

When their newborn son, Elijah, failed his hearing screening, Ahmad’s career took on a different meaning. Initially doctors diagnosed Elijah with an ear infection caused by fluid buildup, but Ahmad insisted on more tests. Three months later, he learned that his son had severe to profound permanent hearing loss in his left ear.

“When I found out, I did cry,” he says. “I had counseled patients and parents of newborns with hearing loss, but you never understand how you’ll deal with it until it hits home.”

Ahmad and Dekeshia began using sign language with Elijah, who learned to sign for “milk” and “more” before he could speak. Now, at 6 years old, Elijah doesn’t even wear a hearing aid; he uses his right ear to compensate for the loss.

For Ahmad, the personal experience has led him to grow even more passionate for his career. About three years ago, he rejoined the military as an Army audiologist — helping ensure that soldiers, who are constantly exposed to dangerous noise levels, are wearing hearing protection and being properly treated. Currently, he’s the hearing program manager for Army health clinics in Bavaria, Germany, where he is joined by Dekeshia, Elijah and their youngest son, Micah, who was luckily born without any hearing loss. “There’s a possibility we may never find out what caused Elijah’s hearing loss,” he says. “But it’s made me realize that maybe I chose this profession for a different reason, one I didn’t even know at the time.”

— Written by Stephanie Detillier Verdin, publications coordinator

This article originally appeared in the spring 2013 issue of The Colonel alumni magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

15-year dream comes true

After more than a decade of planning and fundraising, Executive Director Christy Naquin (BS ’95) and other Colonels help bring the Bayou Country Children’s Museum to life.

Executive Director Christy Naquin (BS ’95) started working with the museum when it was only a sketch on paper. Now she manages the day-to-day operations of the facility.
Executive Director Christy Naquin (BS ’95) started working with the museum when it was only a sketch on paper. Now she manages the day-to-day operations of the facility.

Mid-afternoon on a winter Wednesday, Thibodaux’s new Bayou Country Children’s Museum sits quiet.

“It’s nap time,” Executive Director Christy Naquin (BS ’95) explains. Around 2 o’clock each afternoon, the daily lull gives the museum’s employees and volunteers a chance to restore order after the morning rush. Once school lets out, the building will once again fill with the noise of discovery and play. Children will scramble onto a full-size John Deere sugar cane harvester and clear imaginary fields; some will hop aboard a shrimp trawler named “Miss Clotille,” while others fish off a replica oil derrick outfitted with a delightfully speedy slide.

“Occasionally, I’ll go into the play space and just listen,” Naquin says. “I love hearing the laughter and the shrieks. Children just love it. They have so much fun here. And as for parents, I think we exceeded everyone’s expectations.”

Conceived by former Thibodaux physician Dr. Ethel Marie Mendenhall (BA ’73, MEd ’80), the $3.6 million children’s museum is a dream 15 years in the making and has been more successful than anticipated. But the uniquely south Louisiana museum might have remained just a wishful sketch if not for the efforts of Nicholls marketing graduate Naquin and a number of other university employees, students and supporters who helped bring the project to life.

“It’s amazing to finally see the exhibits that I’d only imagined for such a long time,” Naquin says. “I was so tired of going place to place armed with the artist’s drawings, trying to build support for the project. Now people can see the real thing, fully built with children having a good time — it’s very fulfilling.”

Naquin manages the museum’s day-to-day operations as well as oversees the ongoing fundraising initiatives. For years, without realizing it, she had been preparing to take on such a role.

The Thibodaux native known for her spunky personality discovered a natural affinity for marketing while taking business classes at Nicholls. “I knew for sure I didn’t want to major in finance or accounting,” Naquin recalls. “Marketing is something that was much better suited to me, and it led me right where I was meant to be.”

Open Tuesday through Sunday, the museum is located at 211 Rue Bethancourt, which was leased to the museum board by Thibodaux entrepreneurs Jake Giardina and Ronald Adams for $1 a year.
Open Tuesday through Sunday, the museum is located at 211 Rue Bethancourt, which was leased to the museum board by Thibodaux entrepreneurs Jake Giardina and Ronald Adams for $1 a year.

Upon graduation, Naquin landed a tourism dream job — marketing director at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie — but was unexpectedly let go when tourism plummeted post- Hurricane Katrina. Never one to remain idle and wanting to continue developing her marketing skills, she took on marketing internships at the yet-to-be-built Bayou Country Children’s Museum and Thibodaux Regional Medical Center while also volunteering with the United Way of South Louisiana.

Although Naquin’s career path quickly rebounded — she accepted a full-time job with SEACOR Marine and then a marketing position at Nicholls — she continued her volunteer work with the museum.

Meanwhile, having settled on a location, finalized its business plan and secured a loan, the museum board — led by then President Kathleen Gros — was ready to hire an executive director. The board immediately turned to Naquin.

Her experience in tourism marketing, event planning and nonprofit work gave her the experience necessary to help steer the museum into the future. Naquin felt conflicted about leaving her job at Nicholls, but she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

“It was something I could really see happening, and it was something I felt in my heart. I really wanted to be a part of it,” Naquin says.

Exhibits at the Bayou Country Children's Museum are steeped in south Louisiaan culture
Exhibits at the Bayou Country Children’s Museum are steeped in south Louisiana culture such as an actual-size John Deere sugar cane harvester.

Now, five years later, as children explore the 34 exhibits steeped in Cajun culture, the Bayou Country Children’s Museum definitely feels like a dream realized. Since opening in September, the 12,700-square-foot building has seen more than 12,000 visitors from 25 states.

“It’s a true blessing, as far as I am concerned,” says Gros, a Nicholls supporter and widow of former Nicholls College of Business Administration Dean Ridley Gros. “So often we tackle projects and one thing or another makes us stop. It’s wonderful to see it come to completion.”

A large globe at the entrance to the main exhibit space traces the paths of eight different cultures that settled south Louisiana: French, Spanish, German, African, Irish and Native American. The idea of rooting the museum in south Louisiana culture and industry never wavered, Naquin says.

“Everything is unique and recognizable,” she says. “How many times have you seen one of these sugar cane harvesters on the side of the road? But it’s not until you’re standing right next to it that you realize how enormous it really is. We recognized that we had something special to build on here.”

Themed “A Bayou Runs Through It,” the museum’s exhibits blend seamlessly together, offering lessons about local industry, culture, health and even safety. Children can operate a replica offshore supply vessel or race pirogues down a model bayou outfitted with locks and floodgates. They can also shop at a child-size Rouses grocery store and prepare their purchases at a homey Cajun restaurant. There’s a Mardi Gras exhibit with beads to throw to a Carnival crowd, a pit to dig for buried treasure and a stage with plenty of costumes for dress up.

The museum’s only guided exhibit, “Safetyville,” is a small replica home that is staffed by a local law enforcement officer. Designed to teach children fire and severe weather safety, the living room rumbles and shakes, which cues WWL-TV Chief Meteorologist Carl Arredondo to appear on the TV and offer safety tips. In a makeshift bedroom, smoke pours from under the door, promoting a lesson on how to escape a fire.

Since opening in September 2013, the museum has welcomed more than 12,000 visitors and now plans to expand upon its 34 exhibits.
Since opening in September 2013, the museum has welcomed more than 12,000 visitors and now plans to expand upon its 34 exhibits.

“The first time I went in the museum to work, I overheard a little girl say to her mom, ‘This is the best place I have ever been.’ To go in there and hear the excitement of children — you know we’ve created something special,” Gros says.

Although the doors have only been open a short time, there are already plans to expand the museum and add new exhibits, including one dedicated to the Thibodaux Volunteer Fire Department. To bring phase two of the dream to reality, Naquin remains focused on raising money for the museum; securing sponsorships; and planning popular events such as Play it Forward Casino Night and Night at the Boo-seum, the beloved annual trick-or-treating event.

“Planning for the future of the museum is so much fun, especially now that I get to do it to all that pitterpattering and giggling out there,” Naquin says with a smile.

Nicholls lends a helping hand

Many Nicholls employees, students and alumni had a hand in bringing the Bayou Country Children’s Museum to life. Board members, past and present, have included Kathleen Gros, wife of late College of Business Administration Dean Ridley Gros; Dr. Chuck Viosca (MBA ’85), College of Business assistant dean for graduate programs and special projects; Dr. Leslie Jones (BS ’91, MEd ’92), College of Education dean; Becky Hulbert, wife of former Nicholls President Stephen Hulbert; and Deborah “Raz” Raziano (BA ’74), director emeritus of alumni affairs. Graduate Cheri White D’Albor (BA ’07) designed the logo and original marketing materials for the museum as a class project for Trisha Zeringue Rabalais (AS ’94), assistant professor of art. Dr. Ken Chadwick (BS ’84, MBA ’88), head of the Department of Management, Marketing and Business Administration, helped develop the business plan that secured the museum its loan.

— Written by Nikki Buskey, marketing/communications specialist

This article originally appeared in the spring 2014 issue of The Colonel alumni magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

Nurturer of Nicholls nurses

Becky Lyons Portrait 2 for Voila 2013Right outside the elevator doors, on the third floor of Betsy Cheramie Ayo Hall, Rebecca Lyons steps into a small lobby lined with composite photos of Nicholls nurses. It’s a powerful glimpse at the generations of RNs the university has prepared — from the class of 1986 to present. For Lyons, it’s also a place of deep pride.

As a former intensive care unit nurse, she worked alongside many of the graduates pictured. As the Nicholls nursing department head, she has taught even more of them. And, as she sometimes points out to students, she’s on the wall herself — look in the 1986 frame, bottom row, fourth from right. Her hair color is different, she says with a laugh, but not much else has changed.

“I thought I was going to live and die as an ICU nurse. I loved every second of it,” Lyons says. “I never thought I’d go into higher education, but it’s been an incredible experience. To work with students whose whole careers are in front of them is so fulfilling but also intense. Some days, taking on seven open-heart surgeries by myself would be easier than this job.”

Lyons describes her 12 years in Terrebonne General Medical Center’s ICU as “crazy-busy” but exhilarating. Her husband, Tommy, kept things together while the mother of two worked countless days, nights, holidays and weekends. One fateful shift, Lyons decided she wanted more out of her nursing career. She enrolled in an online graduate program and earned her master’s degree, opening the door to a new career path.

Since joining the Nicholls faculty in 2000, Lyons has approached teaching the same way she approached nursing: with a relentless attention to detail, professionalism and good bedside — or deskside — manner. She doesn’t take herself too seriously and infuses humor whenever possible. She believes in the power of being nice and having a positive outlook.

“I have a rule here. You have two minutes to complain a day,” says Lyons, who became department head in 2005. “Get it out of your system and then move on to something more productive.”

The consummate perfectionist says she gets her work ethic from her mother, who worked relentlessly and raised four children on her own after Lyons’ father passed away when Lyons was only 6.

“I learned to do things well the first time because I may never have a second chance,” she says.

When the workaholic Lyons isn’t in Ayo Hall, she enjoys attempting to grow tomatoes, collecting dishes and china patterns to fill her 8-foot armoire and many kitchen hutches, and “keeping house” at her restored 1869 Creole cottage in Thibodaux. She says cleaning house is her therapy, but when she really needs to unwind, she heads to the Lyons family camp on Four Point Bayou in Dulac with Tommy, her husband of 28 years; Dave, her entrepreneurial-minded son; and Katherine, her daughter who’s an art senior at Nicholls.

Looking back, Lyons isn’t sure why she decided to major in nursing or how she became head of the department where she was once a student, but she believes in the forces of destiny.

“In the ICU, you witness people who should’ve died and didn’t, and you witness people who shouldn’t have died and did,” she says. “In our youth, we try to figure out why, but with time, we learn that things happen for a reason and we can’t question it. So we just do the best that we can. Things find us, and I guess nursing found me.

— Written by Stephanie Detillier Verdin, publications coordinator

This article originally appeared in the fall 2013 issue of Voila! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

Protecting home field

Tyler Duplantis Family 2013
After six tough years, the Duplantis family is back together at their Thibodaux home. The family includes, from left, Ryan, Mary, Kaley, Jacob, David and Tyler.

While his mom awaited a heart transplant, Tyler Duplantis found relief on the Nicholls baseball diamond

April 7, 2013. Nothing was going right. The Nicholls baseball team, already off to a disappointing 1-7 start in Southland Conference play, now trailed Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth.

With two outs and runners at the corners, junior first baseman Tyler Duplantis made his way to the plate. Hitless on the day, Tyler had a chance to be the game hero. With a 2-2 count, he was quickly down to his final swing of the bat. The game rested on the Thibodaux native’s shoulders.

For Tyler, though, this wasn’t pressure — it was the perfect escape. Pressure was patiently waiting for him at home. Baseball was his relief.

In March 2007, Tyler’s mother, Mary, was diagnosed with an arrhythmia and cardiomyopathy. Simply put, her heart no longer worked the way it should, and the prognosis wasn’t good. Shortly thereafter, the Duplantis family sat down and made a pact.

“We decided right then that no matter what would happen with mom, we were going to keep our day-to-day lives normal,” Tyler says. “For me, there would be no carry-over from family life to baseball.”

Easier said than done. The next six years would test every fiber of the Duplantis family’s mental toughness and faith as Mary endured a series of medical procedures — some more effective than others — and a long-term hospital stay in Houston. Through it all, Tyler poured his fears and frustrations into baseball.

A graduate of E.D. White High School, Tyler joined the Nicholls baseball program in 2009, but he didn’t stay long. “He walked on as a freshman and didn’t have a great fall,” recalls then-assistant and current Nicholls head coach Seth Thibodeaux.

“He wanted to play and realized there wouldn’t be much opportunity here, so he headed to Loyola and had two really good years. But I think he always wanted to return to Nicholls and prove he could play here. We got him back in fall 2011, and he was on a mission. He put on muscle and was in the cages every day. It was one of the best redshirt years I’ve ever seen. He studied film — something I’ve never seen a redshirt do. That’s who Tyler is, though. He gets the most out of himself every day.”

The source of Tyler’s drive was both simple and noble: Every night he just wanted to relay some happy news to his mother, who was patiently waiting for a heart transplant.

Tyler Duplantis Family 2013
After undergoing heart transplant surgery in March 2013, Mary returned home and watched her son Tyler finish his best season with the Colonels.

“For me to say that all this hasn’t been hard wouldn’t be right, but in those early years, I learned how to flip the switch,” Tyler says. “There was nothing I could do to help my mom’s health, but I could do my best in everything else. How could I give anything less while she was fighting so hard? So, I knew that for me to do well and have a good story to tell her at the end of the day would make her happy. That was my way of providing for her.”

Staying true to his family’s wishes, Tyler kept his mother’s personal struggles to himself while quietly taking on additional home responsibilities. His dad, David, drove back and forth from Thibodaux to Houston, where Mary waited on a new heart with their youngest child, Jacob, now 12. Rather than move into an apartment with his teammates, Tyler stayed at home to help look out for his younger brother, Ryan, now 18, and help his sister, Kaley, now 20.

“That young man has never been a complainer,” Thibodeaux says. “He helped raise his siblings, he’s carrying a 3.2 GPA in marketing and he’s been successful on the field. You never would have known that something was wrong. We, as a team, handled it well because of how he handled it.”

Tyler fed off of his teammates’ energy. “I don’t think they realized how much I relied on them,” he says. “They’re just a positive group of guys to be around. The field was my getaway. For three to five hours out of the day, there was nothing that could go wrong.”

Tyler worked his way into the starting lineup during the 2012–13 season and was off to a solid start when he got a long-awaited call in late February.

“The hospital called my mom and said there’s a small chance she might get a heart transplant. Right before practice, I was told to pack my stuff because they were pretty sure this was happening. My team and I gathered for a quick prayer, and I was gone. It was pure excitement but with a little anxiety. It’s never a given that it’s going to work. She had some early signs of rejection, but everything’s been good so far.”

Mary’s new heart started beating March 1. The very next day, Tyler was back with his team on the field, picking up right where he left off. In his best season yet, he led the Colonels in batting average, on-base percentage and fielding percentage. Seemingly, neither Tyler nor Mary skipped a beat.

Mary even made it to a few late-season games, and she and Jacob have moved back into their Thibodaux family home.

As for that early April nail-biter, Tyler struck out. He went down swinging, but in the grand scheme of things, did it even matter?

“When you’re dealing with a heart transplant, everything else seems minor,” Mary says. “You need to put it in perspective and think of how this small trial can improve who you are.

— Written by Mike Wagenheim, assistant athletics director for communications

This article originally appeared in the fall 2013 issue of Voila! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.

Look who’s coming to Nicholls

The number of highly recruited, overachieving high school seniors who make Nicholls their university of choice might surprise you. Each fall, the admissions office brings in a diverse group of talented freshmen with high aspirations. Here’s a glimpse at six of our 2013 Colonel freshmen and what attracted them to Nicholls:

kaylee.coleKaylee Cole
Biology/pre-med major from Raceland

“I wanted a place I could call home, a university where people would care about me as a person, not just a student. As a pre-med major, I know I’ll be taking difficult classes, and at Nicholls, the professors are so willing to help. When it came down to making my college decision, I felt I could have more success at Nicholls.”

Look Who's Coming to Nicholls for Voila 2013 Keating McFarlandKeating McFarland
Culinary arts major from Mount Desert, Maine

“I looked at big culinary schools in the Northeast, but I wanted a change of scenery. Plus, I’ve been a trumpet player for 10 years, so I asked my guidance counselor to look for schools where I could pursue culinary and music. I love the atmosphere down here — great food, great music, diverse people.”

Camille Comeaux 2013 Look Who's Coming to Nicholls for Voila!Camille Comeaux
Biology/predentistry major from
Baton Rouge

“I narrowed my college list down to small schools, and when I toured Nicholls, I fell in love with how friendly the people were. It’s also neat because Gouaux Hall is named after my great-grandfather and its auditorium is named after my grandfather. I think they would be tickled to know that I’m now a Nicholls student.”

marina.lillyMarina Lilly
Business administration major
from Dallas

“It came down to three schools, and Nicholls had everything I was looking for — a friendly environment, small class sizes and a successful women’s basketball program that wasn’t too far away from home but not too close either.”

James LeBlanc 2013 Look Who's Coming to Nicholls for Voila!James LeBlanc
Finance major from Bourg

“I applied to two other larger universities, but I decided on Nicholls because of its affordability and its business school accreditation, which is a really big thing. I also own my own business, Elite Home and Lawn Care, so I’ll be able to continue doing that while earning my degree.”

Tyler Chiasson for Voila 2013 Look Who's Coming to NichollsTyler Chiasson
Athletic training major from
Morgan City

“After serving in the U.S. Air Force for six years, I worked offshore for a few months and then realized that I wanted to take advantage of my military benefits to attend college. Nicholls was not only close to home but also offered a welcoming environment for veterans — from social events to help with scheduling classes.”

Local musician studies concussions

John Daigle Voila Portrait 2013For John Daigle (BS ’13), music and medicine go hand-in-hand. Whether playing just the right song to satisfy a crowd or helping the injured or concussed, the recent grad hopes to positively affect those around him. And he’s off to a solid start.

With an interest sparked by his high school football career, Daigle researched a hot topic for his university honors thesis: sports-related concussions. From little league to the NFL, everyone is concerned about when it’s safe for an athlete who suffered a concussion to return to the playing field.

With help from Thibodaux Regional Medical Center, Daigle used a Computerized Dynamic Posturography machine to measure different components of balance in both concussed and non-concussed athletes.

“Even though concussed individuals may appear ready to get back on the field, they oftentimes still have impairments to their balance,” Daigle says. “It’s easy to spot a broken leg and know that the person is injured, but the brain is very tricky because it is harder to detect how badly injured a person really is.”

John Daigle Voila Portrait 2013An athlete can typically return to the field after being asymptomatic for at least a week, Daigle learned, but the severity of the concussion also dictates the time needed to heal.

Daigle’s research will come in handy as he spends the next year preparing for the medical school entrance exam, but he’s doing more than studying these days. Daigle’s acoustical guitar and singing talents have taken him to watering holes and venues from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and back to his hometown of Thibodaux. For the past three years, he’s been playing indie/folk rock, mixed with a few original songs.

While “Wagon Wheel” and “Don’t Stop Believin’” are guaranteed crowdpleasers, one of Daigle’s favorite things to do is take popular songs from various genres and turn them into an easy acoustic sound. “Whether it be a career in the health care profession or playing music for people, I hope to continue to make a difference in the lives of others,” Daigle says.

— Written by Jacqueline Weimer, graduate student

This article originally appeared in the fall 2013 issue of Voila! magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.