When Tatiana Nwefor stepped forward to receive her diploma during the Grad Walk at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), fifteen people, nearly all of them in traditional dress from Cameroon, stood in front of the stage cheering and taking photos.
The same group of celebrants, from infants to elders, then remained in place to also applaud and snap photos of the next graduate in line, Gisele Chawchang.
Nwefor and Chawchang, in-laws in an extended family of immigrants, had simultaneously completed graduate degrees in cybersecurity management and policy. Nwefor came from a background in banking and finance while Chawchang had an earlier degree in law. For both of them, and their families, the graduation marked the beginning of a new chapter.
The two women were among nearly 2,000 graduates who converged on the College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center from May 11-14 to receive associate, bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees, take photos, and mark the personal milestone. Some 13,000 family members and friends turned up to help celebrate their achievement.
“One thing that becomes obvious at graduation is way the stories become so personal,” said UMGC President Gregory Fowler, who earlier in the month took part at UMGC’s more formal commencement ceremonies for servicemembers, their families, and civilian employees of the military in Asia and Europe. “When you see the graduates’ parents and grandparents and friends around them, you realize there are stories behind each of these students.”
The COVID-19 pandemic had prompted UMGC in 2021to re-imagine its graduation ceremony. Students loved Grad Walk so much that it has become a permanent part of UMGC’s stateside commencement.
Rather than move across a big stage in a massive venue as part of an hours-long ceremony, UMGC degree recipients are the main focus of a more personalized event. Each graduate steps up on a dais—sometimes with their children, spouses, and even parents joining them on stage—to receive a diploma while friends and families stand nearby to take pictures, shoot videos, and applaud. Other large universities discourage commencement noisemaking; UMGC encourages it.
President Fowler, walking through the crowd and taking photos with students when he wasn’t on stage distributing diplomas, said he noticed that a significant number of graduates in the Class of 2023 had pursued degrees in science and technology, areas where job opportunities are on the rise.
“Another thing that struck me this year is how many family members were graduating together. Parents graduating with kids, siblings getting their diplomas together, husbands and wives graduating together,” the president said. “I also saw the legacy effect, the ripple effect, of a UMGC education—a current graduate, for example, who was with someone from their family who had just graduated in December.”
When husband and wife Timor and Gianne Omar stood together on the Grad Walk stage, they were completing what Timor described as a “long and tough journey.” The couple dated in high school, married, and joined the ROTC together. They studied toward their bachelor’s degrees in cybersecurity technology while engaging in military training and working part-time, Timor as a Grade 8 substitute math teacher and Gianne as a tech employee at an Apple store.
“During mentorship in our military program, we were really encouraged to look into cybersecurity because it is in demand and is needed to meet the needs of our country at the moment,” Gianne said. “UMGC’s flexible schedule worked for us. The success coaches were great. You didn’t have to try to find them, they looked for you and made sure you were on track. And UMGC is really great about having professors who understand working students who are in the military.
“We wouldn’t have made it across the stage if it hadn’t been this university,” she said.
While receiving their diplomas, both proudly wore U.S. Air Force stoles over their graduation gowns. Days later, they were scheduled to be commissioned as second lieutenants at the United States Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, before traveling to Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi to begin jobs in cybersecurity.
Joya Costa, selected to give the Class of 2023 student speech, also graduated with her husband. Both earned master’s degrees in cybersecurity technology. Costa said in her commencement remarks that her drive for a degree was inspired by her mother.
“My grandmother was married when she was 14. Even my mother could not go to college. She was married right out of high school,” said Costa, whose family emigrated to the United States from Bangladesh. “My mom would always tell me, ‘No matter what, you should continue your education. This is the one thing no one can ever take away from you. This is an opportunity you have that I didn’t have.’”
When Costa was in her first year of college, her mother, a pedestrian at the time, was struck by a reckless driver and killed. Costa was forced to leave school to find a job and help the family. It took four more years before she earned her associate degree and another two until she received a bachelor’s degree from UMGC in 2018.
“I started my journey again in fall 2020,” she said in her graduation address. “Today I am here with a 4.0 grade point average, the first graduate in my family.”
Costa’s remarks joined the other graduation addresses that were videotaped and posted to UMGC’s website, along with an a cappella version of the national anthem sung by Sarah Pappas, who received a Master of Science in Health Care Administration.
In his commencement remarks, Maryland Governor Wes Moore congratulated the Class of 2023 for its perseverance. “Getting this far and reaching this day demonstrates something powerful—your belief in the power of education. It demonstrates the evidence of your willingness to invest in yourselves,” he said.
William T. Woods, a regent of the University System of Maryland and the parent of two May 2014 UMGC graduates, also extended his congratulations to graduates. “You are graduating from one of the most dynamic institutions of higher education in the world. The largest university in Maryland, a world leader in online education, and a global force with a presence in more than 20 countries and territories around the world,” he said.
President Fowler, meanwhile, told the new graduates to “be bold and seize… opportunities.”
“Through education, you join the ranks of those who form the backbone of vibrant communities, a competitive workforce, a strong military, and effective government. This is an honor, a privilege, and a solemn responsibility…” the UMGC president said. “Use what you’ve learned to help make our world better and brighter, more prosperous, more peaceful, and more just.”
After UMGC students at Grad Walk received their diplomas, they moved to an area where formal photos were taken by the university. They also took advantage of numerous selfie kiosks with UMGC backdrops, signed a big message board, bought UMGC gear, and received treats, balloons, and paper mortarboards for their children, the future generation of UMGC graduates.
Deborah Elaine Jones, 62, was escorted on stage by her older brother, who had traveled from Michigan to see her receive a Bachelor of Arts in History. The death of their sister, just days before the start of Jones’s final semester of school, almost derailed the academic journey she described as long in coming.
The former Detroiter, who now works on Capitol Hill, had moved to the D.C. area in 1980 and enrolled at Prince George’s Community College. But work and life obligations got in the way of the bachelor’s degree she wanted.
She credited a tight-knit group of women friends with helping her through the final stretch of her studies. They were her rock after her sister died in January. And some of them had traveled with Jones during the early semesters of her study to explore Italy and its history, one of her areas of interest. They also encouraged her when she was working on her final project, which focused on how Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) stepped up to help 50 German Jewish scholars escape the Nazis during World War II by giving them faculty positions in the United States.
UMGC Senior Vice President and Chief Academic Officer Blakely Pomietto noted that every member of the Class of 2023 had pushed past obstacles to earn a degree.
“Maybe they are the first in their family to get a degree. Maybe they had to deal with illness or family loss along the way. Maybe it took them 28 or even 38 years to complete their degree,” said Pomietto. “Each of them had to give up something, perhaps time with their family, to get here. But they did it. And that is inspiring.”
Zoheb Rafiq Khan, who received a Master of Science in Management, is the eldest son of an eldest son and the first person in his massive extended family to earn a graduate degree. Twenty-three members of his family showed up at Grad Walk to witness him receive his diploma.
“My biggest inspiration is my parents,” Khan said, pointing to his mother and father, both immigrants from Pakistan. “I pursued this degree to secure my future. I did it as a full-time student while working full-time.”