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The 'Spark Plug' Of Change: First UMGC Overseas Graduate's Legacy Inspires At Europe Commencement

As Lauren Bentley walked across the stage on Saturday, May 4, at UMGC Europe’s commencement ceremony in Heidelberg, Germany, each step brought full-circle the inspiring legacy of her great-grandfather—the very first UMGC Europe graduate.

Not only was the late Colonel William C. Bentley Jr. the first to receive a UMGC degree overseas in 1951, he was the ‘spark plug’ who initiated the partnership between the university and the U.S. military 64 years ago.

Lauren began taking classes with UMGC Europe before she was aware of her family’s connection to the university. Three years ago, the tight-knit Marine family moved from Jacksonville, North Carolina to Stuttgart, Germany, when her father was stationed at U.S. European Command Headquarters.

Drawn to the quality academic programs, she took advantage of the unique experience of studying at an American university while living in Europe. The humble 21-year-old later discovered that her great-grandfather was instrumental in allowing her and thousands of others to have this opportunity.

Both a war hero and member of the elite group of U.S. Army Air Corps officers forming the origins of the U.S. Air Force, Col. Bentley had a vision that manifested in another groundbreaking mission: To ensure higher education was available to military serving in post-WWII Europe. In 1949, he gained support of military officials to introduce a college program on military bases overseas. Of the many he approached, UMGC was the only university willing to take on this unprecedented challenge in war-torn Europe.

Together, they planted the enduring roots of a program that to this day has enabled 65,000 military personnel and their family members to earn degrees while serving their country at more than 65 sites ranging from the United Kingdom to Afghanistan. “It’s incredible what a huge impact he’s had,” Lauren said, “If my great-grandfather was here today, I’d say thank you for opening this door of opportunity for so many people.”

At Saturday’s ceremony, her father, Lt. Col. William Bentley III, and grandfather, Lt. Col. (USAF Retired) Woodruff Bentley Sr., gave powerful keynote addresses and accepted an honorary degree of Doctor of Public Service posthumously conferred on Col. Bentley. Through the telling of his story, graduates walked away with both diplomas and an enduring message: One individual’s dedication to serving others has the potential to impact the world beyond their wildest dreams.

“As you step forth to better your lives and use your degrees, remember that you too can be a ‘spark plug’ by looking out for others and taking that extra step in someone else’s life,” Woodruff said during his speech, “The results will be far more meaningful than anything you can do for yourself.”

The UMGC Class of 2013 is the largest in history, with over 10,000 graduates earning their degrees worldwide. More than 1,300 of them earned their degrees while stationed at military communities across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, and 126 of these graduates are currently serving in warzones.

As the military closes its bases in Heidelberg, this year marks the final ceremony to be held there after 64 years of annual UMGC commencements in the historic community. With Col. Bentley having received his degree in an individual ceremony in Heidelberg in 1951, honoring his pivotal role in the university’s history was a pertinent way to end an important era in UMGC history.

“Sometimes I wonder, if he were alive today, would he be proud of me?” Lauren said, “The whole thing is coming full circle, with my great-grandfather starting the program here and UMGC closing this chapter in Heidelberg with me graduating. It’s such an honor to walk in his footsteps.”

Amongst the 254 graduates who proudly marched across the stage to receive their diplomas in Heidelberg, she was not difficult to spot, as the one graduate who received not only handshakes, but a grandfather’s hug that shook the graduation cap right off her head. This summer, she plans to move back the U.S. and pursue her dream job as an animator by earning another degree in art.

With a future full of possibilities, Lauren and the Class of 2013 will carry the lesson behind Col. Bentley’s legacy on each of their individual journeys, encouraged by Woodruff’s poignant final words to them, “You too can create a legacy for others, and I guarantee that you will find great satisfaction in your life when you remember this: seek to help others.”