The day was full of triumphant smiles and jubilant cheers as years of hard work and dedication were celebrated by more than 200 University of Maryland University College Europe (UMUC Europe) graduates at the Gartenschau Event Hall in Kaiserslautern, Germany, on April 30.
The ceremony honored more than 1,140 students stationed throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East who earned their associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degrees. Among the servicemembers, family members and civilians who received degrees were the first graduates to take on-site MBA courses, the first to receive the Master of Social Work and the first on-site Master of Science in Cybersecurity graduates.
“I want a better future for myself and my family. I want to create better opportunities―education can open those doors for you,” said Sergeant First Class Robert Lewis, who explained that his decision to go back to school was an easy one. He added that education is a key to becoming more competitive in the civilian job market.
SFC Lewis received his master’s degree in cybersecurity after earning his bachelor’s degree in computer information systems management in 2013. He serves in the U.S. Army and traveled from Stuttgart, Germany, for the ceremony. SFC Lewis said that he challenged himself to make his studies a number one priority.
“I’m the first person in my family to earn a college degree. With that comes a huge sense of accomplishment and responsibility. I want to set an example for my subordinates at work and for the rest of my family.”
He became so well versed at balancing work, education and his personal life, he said, that he is considering returning to school once again to earn his PhD. SFC Lewis said he also plans to celebrate another milestone later this year; he will retire from the Army after an esteemed 20-year career.
Kristina Rice, a military spouse and mother of one, flew from RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom to attend. Rice, who is a member of the first class to receive a Master of Social Work through a partnership program with UMUC Europe and Salisbury University, said she recalled the sacrifices she made in order to complete her degree.
Her husband, a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, deployed multiple times while she was working on her studies, once with only a 14-hour notice. Rice had multiple logistics to consider as she continued to travel to Germany occasionally for on-site classes.
“As a military spouse, it’s easy to get lost in the day-to-day grind and focus more on your husband than yourself,” she said. “I decided to set goals for myself, and it is so wonderful to see them come to fruition.”
Jeremiah Wilson, a former firefighter with the U.S. Air Force, is stationed at Landstuhl, Germany, with his wife, who works as a U.S. Army nurse at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. He received his associate’s degree in general computer studies and a bachelor’s degree in computer and information science. At 35, Wilson may be older than the typical college student, but that did not deter him from successfully maintaining a 4.0 GPA throughout his studies.
Wilson explained that keeping his grades up was at times no easy feat. “My wife gave birth to our first son during finals week,” he said with a laugh. “The challenge of being a new parent coupled with studying for finals was an amount of stress that I had never encountered before.”
Wilson attended the ceremony with his wife, his parents and his second son, who was born exactly one month before commencement on March 30.
“Today is a day I’ll never forget,” Wilson said with a proud smile, as he gestured toward his sleeping newborn. “It’s about my children as much as it is about me. I have so many wonderful memories to share and I hope that it motivates them to also seek a college education one day.”
Ambassador Marriët Schuurman, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Special Representative for Women, Peace, and Security, served as the keynote speaker for the ceremony.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” she said, quoting the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead, who was the first woman to receive an honorary doctoral degree from UMUC in 1972.
The ambassador emphasized the importance of NATO’s mission to lead by example and encouraged graduates to do the same, telling them, “As you graduate today, you will become tomorrow’s leaders.”
She ended an alluring and motivational speech by challenging the Class of 2016 to become leaders for change and resilience as they embark upon their future.
UMUC President Javier Miyares shook hands with each graduate and welcomed them to a worldwide and lifelong community of UMUC alumni.
The largest military-affiliated commencement ceremony outside of the United States ended with cheers and smiles, as graduates triumphantly moved the tassel on their graduation caps from the right side to left after receiving their diplomas.