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UMGC Class Of 2013: Success Stories

“On this day, you don’t need role models. Today, YOU are the role models,” proclaimed University of Maryland University College Provost Marie Cini to the 3,200 graduates who attended UMGC’s morning and afternoon commencement ceremonies at the Comcast Center in College Park on Saturday, May 11.

Indeed, Laura Freeman, the afternoon ceremony’s student speaker, personified many of the stories that are typical of adult students who earn their degrees while juggling jobs and raising families.

Freeman’s emotional address recounted hard times where “I spent several years of my adult life in deep poverty…living with my three children in a shack in the woods, cutting and selling pulp wood and firewood to earn enough to care for my family.

“According to the messages of popular culture, I was very unsuccessful,” she said. “My car was junky and my clothes secondhand.”

But she rose above her struggles and began her educational journey at the age of 35, earning an undergraduate degree in education when she was 40. During this time, she also began to rethink her notion of success.

Armed with her degree, Freeman became a teacher to help children like her autistic son, Steven. “Teachers don’t make much money,” she said, “but as my students’ performance improved, I began to feel successful."

Later, teaching elementary school science, Freeman realized the importance of the environment. She graduated Saturday with a master’s degree in environmental management.

She said she recently read a post on Facebook that said: “The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of all kinds.”

At first, she agreed wholeheartedly with what she read. But then she realized that we shouldn’t give up on our drive for success. “We need to redefine success,” she said. She closed her powerful address by saying, “I challenge you all to reject the popular view of success and join me in affirming the value of all our fellow travelers, and working to help everyone reach their potential while rejecting the bottom line mentality.”

The morning ceremony’s student speaker, Sarah Paterson, also recounted her educational journey, which began in the military in Korea in 2003 and included deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. It culminated with her earning a master’s degree in management, with a specialization in homeland security management.

She said a mentor once told her to define her own success and make that her goal.

“Success is not static; it changes and evolves with time” Paterson said. “And we must evaluate it constantly, aligning it with our goals and values.

“Before we begin to celebrate in earnest…I ask that we take a minute to consider our definitions of success,” she cautioned. “When we feel too comfortable, chances are we’re no longer redefining success.”

The sentiment from the morning ceremony’s keynote address by Mark Gerencser (MS ’92), a successful executive with the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, and chair of UMGC’s Board of Visitors, backed up Paterson’s message.

Gerencser urged the graduates to find that “fire within you,” to accomplish great things. He encouraged the Class of 2013 “to find that fire in your heart to complement your brains and talent…you need to follow it closely, and bring this fire to your life’s work, both personally and professionally.”

The Honorable Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, the mayor of Baltimore and the afternoon ceremony’s keynote speaker, acknowledged Mother’s Day on Sunday and credited her own mother, Dr. Nina Rawlings, for instilling in her the drive to succeed and not be sidetracked by life’s challenges.

Her mother’s perseverance was a model for Rawlings-Blake and an integral part of her message to the UMGC graduates. “Many of you have balanced family, career, and study. I fully understand and respect the challenges of work-life balance,” she said. “My mother was a pediatrician and one of the first African Americans to graduate from the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

“When I was in college,” Rawlings-Blake continued, “I called home in distress. I told my mother it was too tough. She said that if you want to learn what’s tough, try sitting for the medical boards with morning sickness!”

Rawlings-Blake was awarded an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree at the ceremony.

UMGC President Javier Miyares capped off the day—and received the loudest round of applause from the graduates—when he thanked “the husbands, wives, partners, children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, and dear friends who offered their love and encouragement” for helping the graduates get to this day.

“YOU (Graduates) represent our greatest achievement. And we are so proud to recognize and celebrate your success.”