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University of Maryland Global Campus graduation numbers up in Europe as lockdowns boost enrollment

Marlynn Cruz, an Air Force master sergeant at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, decorated her graduation cap for the University of Maryland Global Campus Europe's commencement ceremony for the class of 2021 on Saturday, May 1, 2021.

JENNIFER H. SVAN/STARS AND STRIPES

By JENNIFER H. SVAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 1, 2021

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WIESBADEN, Germany — Some U.S. military personnel and their families used the extra time at home during more than a year of coronavirus restrictions to hit the books.

This year, 1,360 students received diplomas from the University of Maryland Global Campus Europe – about 200 more graduates than last year, an increase university officials attribute in part to students signing up for more classes during lockdowns. A pivot from in-person to live-streaming instruction also opened more courses for students across UMGC Europe’s footprint in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, officials said.

Capt. Jawaan Thomas, 32, an Army reservist on active duty with a medical brigade in Sembach, was able to devote more time to pursuing a master’s of business administration degree “because I wasn’t traveling,” he said.

Being in Germany during the lockdowns “has been difficult, but I had this extra project on the side to occupy my time,” he said of his studies.

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Thomas was among more than 100 UMGC Europe graduates who walked the stage Saturday on an Army airfield as family and friends honked horns from parked cars.

The ceremony was the university’s second drive-in movie style graduation in less than a year, a new normal in the current pandemic.

“Let’s recognize our collective group of graduates by flashing your headlights and honking your horns in honor of our amazing graduates,” said Tony Cho, UMGC Europe vice president and director.

The unusual backdrop of Saturday’s ceremony on Clay Kaserne shows “the unprecedented times we’ve all been living in over the last 18 months almost,” said Gen. Christopher Cavoli, the commander of U.S. Army Europe and Africa and the keynote speaker.

“It’s certainly my first experience participating in a drive-through graduation,” he said, while commending the graduates for “the long journey they took,” spending weekends and late nights “writing and rewriting and proofreading plenty of essays and on and on.”

More than 650 students earned bachelor’s degrees, while nearly 550 associate’s and more than 200 master’s degrees were awarded.

UMGC Europe saw an enrollment spike for its intense, four-week holiday classes, from an average of 500 to about 1,100, Cho said. The period coincided with a hard Christmas lockdown in Germany.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brandon Alexander, 31, an education unit training manager at the NATO air base in Geilenkirchen, was more motivated to study on weekends.

“’Well, I’m not missing anything, so let me just knock this out,’” he said after earning a bachelor’s in human resource management.

Air Force Master Sgt. Marlynn Cruz, 31, earned straight A’s for the first time while finishing her accounting degree.

“I was able to be more focused for sure,” said Cruz, who works in finance at Ramstein Air Base and began her studies eight years ago. “There was no going out, no late nights.”

Some graduating parents, however, said they struggled to balance their studies with helping their kids with homework when schools went remote. More than 50% of this year’s graduates have children.

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“I was working full time, dealing with my daughter’s virtual school,” said Jessica Stevens, 32, an Army spouse from Wiesbaden who earned a degree in human resource management. “For my studies, I was up in the middle of the night.”

Jada Tarver, 37, a former soldier from Wiesbaden, said office closures during the pandemic made it difficult to get some 400 hours of required field work for her degree in social work.

“We had to fulfill the hours that we missed with virtual things,” she said. “I’m also a mom and I work full time. So, yeah, COVID fatigue is real but I made it.”

Cho said when the pandemic hit, UMGC tried to maintain its on-site classes, particularly downrange, where Internet service can be spotty. Before the pandemic, about 50% of UMGC Europe’s classes were online.

Staff worked to convert outdoor spaces into classrooms, such as the open pool deck of a swimming pool at a base in Kuwait. Most on-site classes eventually went remote and were live-streamed, which gave students in different time zones more options, Cho said.

For example, some students from Europe took Arabic from a professor in Bahrain, a class that was previously not offered in Europe.

The university also had to suspend its popular European field study program. “Hemingway in Madrid” was canceled at midpoint last year when the Spanish government announced an imminent lock down.

UMGC Europe hopes to bring back on-site classes this fall. The intent is to also live-stream those classes, “so whoever wants to take it remote, from the convenience of their home, they can,” Cho said.

About 50% of the graduating class was active duty and 121 graduates earned their degrees while downrange.

Spc. Joseph Yeboah, 25, a combat engineer in Grafenwoehr who earned an associate’s degree in computer science, said his biggest challenge was juggling coursework for five classes with two weeks of field training in Hohenfels.

He’s thankful for understanding instructors who gave him extra time to get his assignments done. He managed four A’s and one B.

“I feel great,” he said before walking the stage.

Saturday’s ceremony was the university’s first in Wiesbaden and on an airfield, occurring 70 years after the first Maryland graduate in Europe walked across the stage in Heidelberg.

svan.jennifer@stripes.com
Twitter: @stripesktown

A boy cheers from the backseat during the commencement ceremony for the University of Maryland Global Campus Europe’s class of 2021 on Saturday, May 1, 2021, in Wiesbaden, Germany.
JENNIFER H. SVAN/STARS AND STRIPES

Army Spc. Joseph Yeboah, a combat engineer in Grafenwoehr, Germany, earned an associate’s degree in computer science. He was one of 120 graduates from the University of Maryland Global Campus Europe to attend the class of 2021 commencement ceremony on Saturday, May, 1, 2021, in Wiesbaden, Germany.
JENNIFER H. SVAN/STARS AND STRIPES