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UMGC Global Media Center
Winter Grad Walk Underscored Education as a Family Affair

Mary Dempsey
By Mary Dempsey
Graduate Lala Reynolds, who served as a social media ambassador, with her family and UMGC President Gregory Fowler

At the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) Grad Walk, the anchor activity of the university’s stateside winter commencement, more than 2,000 graduates received their degrees—with many times that number of family members cheering them on.

Commencement might be organized with graduates in mind, but UMGC’s Grad Walk also spotlighted the cascading effect that higher education has on families (or the creation of families; one graduate proposed marriage to their partner!).

Occasionally a graduate walked up to claim a diploma while carrying a baby or with a child at their side. Sometimes more than one sibling graduated at the same time. And there were even married couples and mothers and sons graduating in tandem. 

Against this backdrop, grandparents, spouses, partners, siblings, aunts, uncles, grandchildren and friends turned up for the celebration and were unabashedly, jubilantly vocal.   

Grad Walk 2022 unfolded over three days—Dec. 16, 17 and 18—at the College Park Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, adjacent to the university’s headquarters in Adelphi, Md. The activities came in tandem with the university’s 75th anniversary.

Each graduate rotated through what felt like a personal event. A student’s name and degree appeared on a large TV screen beside a raised stage where diplomas were presented by President Gregory W. Fowler and other representatives of the university’s leadership team. One by one, a member of the Class of ’22 would pause to let family members cluster in a designated area at the front of the stage. Then the grad walked across the stage to receive a diploma while the family clapped, raised high a bouquet of flowers and/or snapped photos. 

“That’s my baby,” a woman called out when one man walked on stage for his Master of Science in Cybersecurity Technology diploma. “You did it!” someone else yelled to a graduate receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

Diploma in hand, each grad then moved on—to meet up with family members a moment later for formal photos taken by UMGC photographers—while a new graduate took their place on stage. 

With this cohort of newly minted alumni, UMGC celebrated another milestone: surpassing 100,000 in the number of alumni living in Maryland. Leading up to the weekend, the university selected several graduates who hail from Maryland to serve as #UMGCgrad Social Media Ambassadors, spreading the word about the milestone and other commencement activities. (UMGC’s global alumni community currently totals more than 275,000 worldwide.)

Graduates receive their diploma with family and friends up close to celebrate the accomplishment.

UMGC prides itself on innovation and Grad Walk, with its steady progression of family-focused merrymaking, was adopted as a creative measure at UMGC’s spring 2022 graduation, its first in-person commencement ceremony after a nearly three-year hiatus sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic. The new arrangement proved so popular that President Fowler said there was little reason to return to the massive hours-long, on-stage processions and ceremonies of the past.

“We’ve been preparing for this all year long. This is our Super Bowl,” Fowler said. He added that he likes the way Grad Walk puts the whole family forward.

“Grad Walk helps personalize the educational experience. And even more, you get to see the impact on families, the impact from generation to generation,” said the UMGC president. “The way we have set up the ceremony lets the families be close to the stage, to take pictures, to cheer on their graduate.

 “In many ways, it reminds us that learning is a team effort,” Fowler said.

The two young sons of Elwyn Mapps Jr., who earned an MBA, stood in the roped off family area and marveled as their father claimed his diploma. 

“These two were a constant source of inspiration. I did this degree to show them that it can be done, to show them that it is important to continue to learn,” said Mapps. He noted that he was receiving his UMGC diploma 20 years—to the day—from when he received an undergraduate degree in industrial engineering.

With this class of graduates, UMGC surpassed 100,000 alumni living in Maryland.

Another graduate had 13 family members, from infants to senior citizens, at the ready to help him celebrate his graduation. Kristen Yasa, meanwhile, had her mother, her three children and her three sisters on hand to cheer as she claimed her Bachelor of Science in Human Resources Management.     

“She worked full-time and was a full-time mother the whole time she was studying,” her proud mother, Lashawn Brady declared.

It turns out Yasa was carrying on a family tradition. One of her sisters, Brooke Cully, is a servicemember who graduated from UMGC two years earlier with a master’s degree in cybersecurity. 

When President Fowler wasn’t handing out diplomas, he walked among the families, shaking hands, posing for photos, offering congratulations. 

Once they had their diplomas in hand, the graduates and their families were ushered into a huge “Celebration Zone” ballroom where they could take more photos against a series of backdrops, buy class rings and other UMGC gear and pen notes of appreciation on an oversized message board. Some of the notes gave a shout out to UMGC faculty and staff. Others zeroed in on family.

“I did it for you, grandma!” read one note.

Young children walked around the Celebration Zone with balloons in hand and paper mortarboards on their heads identifying each as a “Future UMGC grad.”

Outside the celebration area, graduates snapped even more family photos beside the hotel’s holiday trees and decorations. A lobby television ran a continuous loop of the university’s virtual commencement ceremony, with formal commencement addresses and conferral of degrees that is available online for six months. 

Mother and son duo, Carolyn and Immanuel Patton, received their diplomas together.

During his virtual commencement address, President Fowler raised the theme of family. He extended his congratulations to the new grads while thanking “the people who have supported the graduates, the husbands, wives, partners, children, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and teachers and dear friends.”

The president’s remarks also acknowledged the school’s more than 4,500 faculty members. And he offered congratulations to the active duty servicemembers and veterans who had received degrees. Military members and their members, as well as veterans make up more than half of UMGC’s enrollment.

Lawmaker Jazz Lewis, a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, gave the virtual commencement keynote address. Mohamed Babiker, the son of immigrants from Sudan and the recipient of a Master of Science in Cloud Computing Architecture, was the student speaker (read a profile of Mohamed Babiker). Gary Attman of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents also spoke. He offered his congratulations to the graduates, who now join a network of more than 100,000 alumni living in Maryland alone.

Attman, too, recognized the role played by families. After congratulating the students, he added: “I commend the family members and friends whom I sure have kept you going. They have shared in your sacrifice and certainly should share in your success today.”

Class of ’22’s Lynette Richardson sang an acapella version of the national anthem at the opening of the online commencement ceremony and helped close the ceremony with UMGC’s Alma Mater. She received a Master of Science in Strategic Communications.

Students at Grad Walk were just one part of commencement, which saw 7,612 UMGC students around the world receive degrees. Students overseas have opportunities at various dates in the spring to take part in graduation ceremonies in Europe and Asia.

UMGC Chief Academic Officer and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Blakely Pomietto, who opened and closed the commencement ceremony, reminded the Class of ’22 what their new academic milestone means. 

“Today is the day to look back at what you have learned and the obstacles you overcame in order to achieve this goal. It is a day to look around with awareness and gratitude for all of those who helped you achieve it. And it is a day to look ahead to a brighter future because of the investment you have made in yourself,” she said.