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Maryland graduates serenaded with a chorus of honks in Germany

Shadia Hossain waits in her car at the University of Maryland Global Campus Europe's commencement ceremony on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Kaiserslautern, Germany. Hossain earned a master's degree in business administration. The ceremony was held outdoors, drive-movie-in style, to keep everyone socially distant due to the coronavirus pandemic.

JENNIFER H. SVAN/STARS AND STRIPES

By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 7, 2020

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KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany – Formal commencement ceremonies aren’t typically an occasion for honking – unless it’s during a pandemic.

More than 50 graduates from the University of Maryland Global Campus Europe received their diplomas Saturday to a chorus of honking vehicles, courtesy of family and friends parked around an outdoor stage set up at Pulaski Park on Vogelweh.

The commencement ceremony for the class of 2020 was to have been in May but it was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Graduates and college officials held their breath in anticipation of Saturday’s ceremony, wondering if it would even happen, given the current resurgence in coronavirus cases in Germany and Europe and restrictions on social gatherings.

But the university - which changed its name from University of Maryland University College last year – sought a way to still allow graduates to walk the stage while adhering to measures that would keep everyone safe, school officials said. The solution was a drive-in movie style commencement, with graduates donning caps, gowns and face masks and seated in cars instead of rows of chairs. When their names scrolled across a digital screen, they took to the stage individually and received their diplomas through an opening in a plexiglass screen.

The ceremony wrapped up in less than an hour, with only 55 of this year’s 1,162 graduates in Europe in attendance and no guest speaker. Some graduates submitted photos or short videos, which were displayed on a large screen.

“This will be the shortest and fastest commencement ever,” said Tony Cho, UMGC Europe vice president. “So buckle up! No pun intended.”

Those who did come said it was important to be able to celebrate their achievement with a ceremony of sorts.

“It’s something that I’ve worked really hard for,” said Jessica Clasen, 29, who lives near Baumholder and earned a bachelor’s degree in English and is working towards her master’s in special education.

Clasen, who served six years in the Air Force and hopes to be a teacher, wore sparkly red earrings and red heels with her gown.  “I feel like I deserve to walk and enjoy the moment,” she said.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Peter Mureithi, 46, had his gown in the spring and “everything was set,” he said. “Then they said it was canceled. I was disappointed but I didn’t lose hope,” said Mureithi, an intelligence analyst for U.S. Army Europe who grew up in Kenya and earned a master’s degree in information technology management. “When the school contacted us and asked if we’d like to do it virtually or if we’d like to walk across the stage, I chose walk across the stage.”

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jordan Sheckells, 28, earned a master’s degree in business administration in 2019 but wanted to graduate with his wife, Queenie May, who finished her MBA a few months after he did.

The waiting paid off: The Sheckells marched across the stage, one after the other, sharing the moment with their 8-month old son, Eli Michael, and Queenie May’s family, who watched the ceremony, which was live-streamed, from the Philippines.

“I feel like it’s a good way to make” them proud, she said of her family.

For Sgt. 1st Class Jason World Turner, a 37-year-old Army medic, marching in a commencement ceremony was something he never thought he would do. After joining the Army right after graduation in 2001 from his home on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation in South Dakota, he deployed to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan three times.  Time to pursue an education was always elusive.

World Turner was among 552 active-duty graduates in UMGC Europe’s class of 2020 – about 49% of the class. On Saturday, wearing a stole draped over his gown displaying a colorful hand-sewn medicine wheel, he received his bachelor’s degree in psychology, about three years after he began hitting the books.

“Every single semester I took one or two classes and I just kept plugging away at it,” he said.

svan.jennifer@stripes.com
Twitter: @stripesktown

Jessica Clasen waves after receiving her diploma Saturday, Nov 7, 2020, at the University of Maryland Global Campus Europe outdoor commencement ceremony in Kaiserslautern, Germany. A little more than 50 graduates in the class of 2020 walked the stage. The ceremony, originally scheduled for May, had been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
JENNIFER H. SVAN/STARS AND STRIPES