UMUC graduates ready to open new chapters

University of Maryland University College Europe graduates celebrate after receiving their degrees during the commencement ceremony at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Saturday, April 29, 2017.


By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 30, 2017

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany - Tech. Sgt. Allen Adams began studying for a college degree nearly 10 years ago.

On Saturday, the Spangdahlem airman capped an academic journey that spanned three different countries and two deployments by crossing the stage with about 230 fellow graduates at the University of Maryland University College Europe commencement ceremony.

“I’m happy, I’m ecstatic,” he said, of earning his bachelor’s degree in business administration, this year’s most popular degree.

“Mission complete,” Adams said. “Now it’s time for a master’s degree.”

Adams was among 1,189 UMUC Europe graduates this year. Nearly half of this year’s class - about 45 percent - are active duty.

Adams took longer than the UMUC Europe average of 6.3 years to complete the requirements for a bachelor’s. But at 29, he’s still ahead of the curve, with his fellow graduates averaging 40 years of age.

Ivan Centola, 49, a retired soldier and civilian employee in Wiesbaden, beamed at the thought of receiving his master’s in business administration, one of 143 graduates to earn the higher degree.

“I think our smiles on our faces are just the perfect expression,” he said. “It’s a great relief to not have to worry about books and turning in homework.”

No books were spotted inside the Ramstein Officers’ Club during the ceremony, the 65th such one in Europe. The venue this year was switched from downtown Kaiserslautern to the base.

Giles Foden, the prizewinning British author of “The Last King of Scotland” and a UMUC Europe writing instructor at RAF Mildenhall and RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom since January, gave the commencement address.

“From such small beginnings, great things grow,” Foden said, remarking that “commencement” emphasizes the sense of a new beginning and a degree can open doors once closed.

“‘That day of commencement’ has a very fine sound to it,” he said. “It could almost be a movie title with all of you as the stars.”

Such a movie might also be called “tales of perseverance.”

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Joshua Hamilton, 37, stayed the course, despite a cancer diagnosis, surgeries and birth of his daughter more than a year ago.

He started out as an art major at community college in Indianapolis when he was 18, before switching to general studies, then hotel management. The aircraft maintainer finally earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration.

It feels “fantastic, overdue,” he said.

Jarrod Garceau, 36, and Centola were among the last six standing - from a group that started with 18 - to get an MBA through online and monthly face-to-face classes.

The key to success was a willingness to sacrifice, Garceau, a civilian worker at Spangdahlem, said.

“Just put down the X-box controller, put down that Play Station,” he said. “How many hours do you log onto your Internet to look at web sites and YouTube? If you minused all that out of your life, you would have enough time … to invest into a degree.”

Sleep and family time were also sacrificed: About 60 percent of UMUC Europe graduates have kids.

Staff Sgt. Andrea Vasquez, 25, gave birth four months ago while taking two classes. An Air Force lab technician at Ramstein and a single mother, Vasquez finished her bachelor’s with support from friends and her instructors, who let her work ahead or turn assignments in late without penalty.

“I had a goal,” she said. “I wanted to graduate by the spring, so I had to stay with that goal.”

Maggie Gifaldi, 37, a former Hebrew linguist in the Navy, balanced motherhood with full-time studies in pursuit of a bachelor’s in business. “Being able to separate school and home life,” said the mother of four from Wiesbaden. “A lot of things were due on Sunday; a lot of late nights, weekends.”

But her kids also motivated her. “They see how important it is, to get an education,” she said. “My parents didn’t have degrees and so for me to have my bachelor’s and continue on, I think is huge for my kids.”

Those who earned degrees while downrange faced a different set of challenges.

Army Sgt. 1st Class Javier Caldera, 45, of Vilseck, earned a bachelor’s in business administration through three combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mortars disrupted class on occasion while he was in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2013.

One mortar hit so close, “it shook everything and the power went out,” he said. “Everybody had to go out (of the classroom) and go into a bunker.”

Adams, the airmen who deployed to Turkey, dealt with tight living quarters, not mortars.

“Every night, I remember my guys used to complain because there were eight of us in a tent,” with each section separated by sheets, he said. “Late at night, I’d be on my laptop, my area would be lit up so my neighbors couldn’t sleep.

“They would always complain, ‘Allen, turn your laptop off, turn your laptop off,’” he said. “I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m taking five classes. I can’t.’”

svan.jennifer @stripes.com

University of Maryland University College Europe graduates take the stage during the commencement ceremony at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on Saturday, April 29, 2017. About 230 graduates participated in this year's ceremony.

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