During his speedy rise in the U.S. Navy, Petty Officer 1st Class Daniel Mercado, 26, has collected an impressive number of awards and accolades. He also earned two degrees from University of Maryland University College (UMUC). But one thing has eluded this Navy master-at-arms. He has never been able to walk at a commencement with his family present.
On Sept. 18, UMUC organized a rare private graduation ceremony so Mercado’s family and others could watch him accept his Bachelor of Science in human resource management. The ceremony took place nine days before Mercado was deployed on a new Navy assignment aboard the USS Makin Island, an amphibious assault ship.
“I was ecstatic,” said Mercado. “My family had missed so many of these moments in my life and I had a transfer coming up so I wouldn’t be able to walk with other students at graduation in December. I didn’t even realize that a private graduation ceremony was possible.”
During the ceremony in his office, UMUC President Javier Miyares presented Mercado with his diploma. Both the president and retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Lloyd “Milo” Miles, chief operating officer and senior vice president of Global Military Operations at UMUC, spoke at the small gathering that brought together four generations of Mercado’s family.
Mercado was stationed in Italy when he received his Associate of Arts in general studies, so was unable to attend his first college commencement. He completed requirements for his bachelor’s degree this June, but his new deployment put UMUC’s winter 2017 commencement out of reach.
And though many of Mercado’s military commendations and honors also had been awarded while he was stationed distant from his family, he said the UMUC degrees carried special importance because of the value his mother put on education.
“My mother went to school while working full time, and she received associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees. A big part of her master’s degree was walking [at commencement],” Mercado explained. “When I finished my coursework, I was stationed in Maryland at [Naval Air Station] Patuxent River—the closest I’ve been to my family in New Jersey in the last five years. My mother and my grandmother kept pressing for a graduation ceremony.”
Sometimes servicemembers unable to attend commencement can take part at scheduled ceremonies on military bases, aboard military ships or in other venues. Mercado emailed UMUC’s Commencement Services Office to inquire about alternative options. Staff member Amilia Osborne alerted Commencement Services Director Harold Blackmon to Mercado’s problem.
“I worked with our stateside military operations department and did a little bit of checking around on my own because I used to be in the Navy, but we could find nothing that worked with Daniel’s schedule,” Blackmon said. “Here’s an active-duty sailor who has spent his college life at UMUC. This is his university. But he’s never been able to celebrate a degree publicly with his family.”
Blackmon made other university officials aware of Mercado’s situation, and the wheels were put in motion for a private graduation.
A Family Affair
Graduation day was busy. At 8 a.m., Mercado attended a military ceremony where he received a Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, adding to a list of honors that already included three Navy and Marine Corps achievement medals, a Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal, other commendation medals, and a Global War on Terrorism Service Medal. In his seven years in the Navy, the young sailor has risen six grades, a feat that typically takes nearly twice as long.
From the military ceremony in Maryland, Mercado and a 10-person entourage—his parents, grandmother, great-grandmother, girlfriend, her family and others—headed to UMUC for the conferral of his degree that afternoon. Mercado traded his military uniform for a cap and gown.
During the ceremony, Mercado thanked his mother, to whom he had given his diploma when he received his associate's degree. He then stepped forward and handed his new diploma to his grandmother.
“He literally presented her with the actual diploma after talking about what his family had meant to him in the Navy and while he has been trying to pursue his education, the support and unity they represented,” said Blackmon, who was present. “I can tell you, there was joy in that room.”
Five days after the graduation, Mercado proposed to his girlfriend of 11 years at what she thought was to be his going-away party. “She started crying so I had to wait for an answer, but it was ‘yes,’” he said.
Mercado was 19 when he joined the Navy in 2010. After boot camp, he was sent to Italy where he was selected as Sailor of the Year, started moving up the career ladder, and began studying for an associate’s degree. He served for three years in Italy, including Sicily.
After additional stateside training, he was deployed to the Middle East as part of a 12-person team providing security to U.S. merchant marine vessels and other civilian ships threatened by pirates. He served as chief of guard when the team was sent on short-term assignments in Oman, Iran, Dubai, Djibouti and elsewhere.
He enrolled in the Bachelor of Science program in 2014 when he was assigned to the Maryland naval base.
In his new assignment aboard the USS Makin Island, Mercado will serve as an antiterrorism supervisor, running security duty and providing training for servicemembers aboard the ship. The USS Makin Island is typically deployed in Asia.
“I have high hopes one day to be a commissioned officer in the military. I am making this my career,” said Mercado, who others described as focused, hardworking and driven. “And there is a master’s degree in store for me in the future.”