A cap, a gown… and a ring

NSU College of Pharmacy alumna Ally Courson was going to wear a black dress to the Health Professions Division Commencement Ceremony on May 19, at which her boyfriend James Neilen would receive a doctoral degree. When Neilen asked her to wear a different color, she was confused.

“Why are you being so picky?” Courson said she asked him. “You never care about what I wear. Why are you being so vocal right now about what I’m going to wear?” Courson had no idea that Neilen didn’t want her to wear black when he proposed to her.

Because Courson received a doctorate degree in pharmacy in 2012, Courson was eligible to place Neilen’s doctoral hood on his gown as he came on stage to receive the same degree. After she hooded him, he faced her, got down on one knee and proposed to her.

“I was able to walk up on stage, look at her and say, ‘You know, I wouldn’t be here without you, baby. Thank you.’” Neilen said. “And then I turned around, she hooded me and the rest is history.”

Courson said the proposal was “completely shocking” as she had no suspicion of his intentions.

“It was so unexpected; I think you could see it on my face,” Courson said. “I don’t even remember saying yes. I just kind of nodded because I couldn’t talk. It was very exciting and very overwhelming at the same time.”

She was especially surprised because she did not think Neilen would propose in front of a crowd.

“Everybody started cheering, so I had complete stage fright,” Courson said. “There [were] a thousand people looking at me and clapping,”

Neilen, on the other hand, didn’t notice the audience. “When I first went up there, I saw Ally and I only thought about her,” he said. “Then as soon as we did our thing, we turned around, we saw everybody cheering, [and] my mind was like, ‘Oh, wow, I guess there is an audience.’”

In that audience was Mark Schuknecht, digital video solutions architect for the Office of Innovation and Information Technology, who was monitoring the online live stream of the commencement ceremony. Schuknecht heard the crowd’s reaction to the proposal, saw the proposal and knew right away that he had to spread the word.

“I said, ‘This is a nice story and we should try to get it out there for other people to see it,’” Schuknecht said. “It was a pure human moment, which I thought was nice.”

That night, he created a video clip of the proposal and sent it to the Office of Public Affairs. The news was published on the NSU website and the NSU YouTube channel featured a video of the proposal.

The video, titled “Nova Southeastern University Student Proposes at Graduation,” now has more than 3,000 views.

Neilen said one of the things that made the proposal special was that their mentor Carsten Evans, executive director for Continuing Education and Professional Affairs in HPD was there.

Evans, who was then the College of Pharmacy’s assistant dean for Continuing Professional Education, was not supposed to be on stage at commencement but started to help hooding students to replace missing participants. Evans said Neilen and James Neilen and Ally Courson, College of Pharmacy alumni celebrate Neilen’s graduation and their engagement. Courson are a great couple and that the proposal was the culmination of the five years they spent at NSU and a “successful student endeavor.”

“We’re people and we’re about success,” Evans said. “This was a cute story and these people are examples of young people who had desires to have professional careers and did it. It’s the continuity of a life dream and I think that’s special.”

Courson is now in her second year of her pharmacy residency at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, and Neilen is in the first year of his pharmacy residency at Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Providence, R.I. They plan to wed in September 2014.

Courson said, “That would be our eight-year anniversary, so if it works out, that would be amazing.”

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