This report has been corrected.
HEIDELBERG, Germany — When she started college at University of Maryland University College Europe three years ago, Lauren Bentley was unaware of her family’s link to the school.
But she has since learned that, had it not been for her great-grandfather, the school might not exist. She graduated Saturday with her bachelors in psychology from the same school her great-grandfather helped found and graduated from 62 years earlier.
“And so now it’s just a really special day,” she said.
Now, like much of the military in Europe, the school, which has long helped servicemembers and their families earn degrees, is swept up in the transformation that is shuttering bases and realigning forces on the continent.
Heidelberg, where UMUC has had its European headquarters since its founding and site of most commencements since the first in 1951, is among the military communities closing down. Where the school’s headquarters will go next is still undecided, officials said.
But one thing is for sure: Saturday’s graduation at Patrick Henry Village was the last the school will hold here.
Much of the ceremony focused on history, particularly the parallel stories of the school and the Bentley family.
Col. William C. Bentley was the main force behind the school’s creation in the rubble of post-war Germany in 1949, and its first graduate.
“It was not the Germany of today,” Bentley’s son, Stewart Woodruff Bentley, told the class of 2013. “It was a country of destruction, desperation, despair and fear. Frankly, it was grim.”
Then, as now, the military was shrinking after the end of a long war. Officers who didn’t have college degrees had a choice either to join the enlisted ranks or leave the service, Bentley said.
While servicemembers stateside could take classes at local colleges, there were no similar options for the hundreds of thousands of personnel based in post-war Europe. Bentley was 10 years old in 1948 when his father embarked on something of a personal quest to bring college to them.
“I can remember him at the dining room table discussing the issue,” he told the graduates. “But I admit that I was too young to understand the magnitude of the problem and the difficulty of actually developing an overseas degree program from scratch.”
“I’m sure he never expected what I see here today with you, the class of 2013.”
More than 150,000 students have graduated from UMUC over the years, and more than 11,000 finished their degree requirements in the last year, making 2013 the largest class in the school’s history, one school official said.
Earning those degrees, Bentley and others acknowledged, was often difficult. A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, Bentley said it took him eight years to finish his degree while working full time, and it took his wife 14 years.
“So, we know the pain that you’ve been through.”
It took Air Force Staff Sgt. Bryan Payton just four and a half years to finish his bachelors in information systems management, but between work and deployments, it was far from easy, he said.
“I’ve taken classes all across the world,” said Payton, who is based at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany.
Deployed to Balad, Iraq, in 2011 as the war there drew to a close, he didn’t have access to a computer and hand-wrote papers and turned them in to a supervisor to mail them to his professor.
Jerrod Lanier, an information technology specialist at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, said he and his fellow graduates were part of history, graduating at the school’s final Heidelberg commencement.
“People can remember that,” he said. “What was so important about 2011? Nobody knows. 2013? We were the last. So it’s very significant.”
Marine Lt. Col. William C. Bentley III, a grandson of the school’s founder and father of Lauren, also spoke at the ceremony, encouraging graduates to follow his grandfather in making a difference.
Afterward, he said his daughter had chosen UMUC for its programs, not the family history, and it was just coincidence that she was part of the school’s last Heidelberg commencement. The fact that she was graduating was the highlight of the day for him, he said.
“What makes it extra special is just the fact it goes back to the legacy of her great grandfather having a hand in starting a program overseas.”
“It’s terrific for us to be able to close the chapter for UMUC in Heidelberg.”
The report incorrectly stated that Heidelberg hosted every UMUC Europe commencement since the first in 1951. The school’s first large cap-and-gown commencement was held in Heidelberg in 1954, and while most have been held there since, ceremonies in 1996, 1999 and 2001 were held in other locations, according to UMUC.