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200 students receive degrees at UMUC commencement in Kaiserslautern

KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — Spc. Rose Ndungu isn't a typical college graduate – not even for her school, the University of Maryland University College Europe.

The school's average student takes 7 ½ years to finish requirements for a bachelor's degree and graduates at the age of 35. Ndungu managed the feat in just three years and, at the age of 25, the Army truck driver walked across the stage at the school's commencement ceremony Saturday with a huge smile on her face.

“I never had time to do a lot of stuff” because of all the time she put into her classes, she said. “Even when I was deployed, I was still doing schoolwork.”

That's the way it goes for a lot of UMUC Europe's students.

More than 40 percent of the school's graduates are active-duty military, as was its first graduate class in 1951.

Saturday's commencement at the Gartenschau in Kaiserslautern, was the school's first in its new home city. The school's Europe headquarters moved here after the closure last year of the Army garrison in Heidelberg, the longtime home of both U.S. Army Europe and UMUC Europe.

About 200 students crossed the stage at Saturday's ceremony – a fraction of the more than 1,200 graduates that make up UMUC Europe's 2014 class. Among those, 107 earned master's degrees, 528 their bachelor's and 597 got their associate degrees. Perhaps the most telling statistic of the school's demographics: 85 of this year's graduates are deployed.

Ndungu, a native of Arlington, Texas, said taking classes while deployed to Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, Afghanistan, was more of a help than a hindrance for her, “because it took my mind off of everything in Afghanistan.”

The focus it gave her allowed her to finish a bachelor's in business administration and a minor in criminal justice all within her first enlistment, she said.

But that, according to statistics cited at the ceremony, is not typical.

The experience of Army Chief Warrant Officer James Shackelton and his wife, Lisa, a sergeant first class, is more common.

Both deployed to Iraq while going to school. James Shackelton's assignment as a criminal investigator took him all over the country's north, he said.

“Whenever I packed all my kit, I would also have to pack my books as well. That made it a little bit more interesting.”

It took him only 14 years to finish his bachelor's in criminal justice, he quipped. “Working full time and going to school is really hard. But we made it happen.”

The same goes for Air Force Tech. Sgt. Terrance Lucero and his wife, Charlotte, a civilian. Like the Shackeltons, they crossed the stage one after the other Saturday.

“I actually took my first class with [UMUC's] Asian division back in 2001 before I joined the military,” Terrance Lucero said. He stopped for a while, then resumed school in 2009 while deployed to Balad, Iraq.

“So it’s been one of those decade-plus degree plans,” he said with a laugh.

Working full time, often with odd hours, while going to school was hard to balance, he said.

“It’s really just great to know that all the hard work and all those nights of studying and grinding through these classes has finally just paid off,” he said.

First Lt. R.J. Niesen had more than just deployments and school to worry about.

“My first sergeant said that if I wanted to go big or go home in the Army, I needed to start focusing on civilian education,” he said.

He took his first class in 2006, and later got a conditional commission through the Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Ga. He had three years of college under his belt at the time, he said. If he didn't finish college, he'd lose his commission.

Soon after finishing OCS, he deployed to Afghanistan with the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in 2012. He took online classes, studying rather than sleeping. His routine was rocked when shrapnel from an insurgent grenade tore into his right leg. He recovered in Afghanistan, continued taking classes and finished the requirements for his bachelor's in December. The support of his wife and two boys are what made it possible, he said.

After what he'd been through, he was elated to “get to walk across the stage with my boys and my wife here, as they have been step-by-step the last eight years.”

According to school statistics, Niesen is nearly the prototypical UMUC Europe graduate: 83 percent of its graduates are married and 64 percent have children.

Seeing all those families was an inspiration for Ndungu.

“Now I’m even more motivated to get my master's seeing all these young people and even other older people with big families getting their master's. Now I have to get mine.”

millham.matthew@stripes.com
Twitter: @mattmillham

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