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Ceremony salutes graduates

When you’re a kid, you notice the funniest things. My big takeaway from my brother’s high school graduation a few decades back? Several students walked across the stage barefoot. I guess it was a ‘70s thing.

Since then, I’ve sat through my fair share of commencement services, including two more for that same brother. When he pomped and circumstanced at Ole Miss, the announcer got all three of his names — first, middle and last — wrong. My brother said he almost didn’t stand up because of that.

(Which would have been a real shame since he had all of 2.3 seconds to shine.)

And then there were the commencement speeches. My favorite was given by none other than Jerry Clower the afternoon Mr. Henderson and I finished up at Mississippi College. Ahhhwwww!!!

Yep, I’ve seen a lot of tassels turned and caps tossed, but last Friday I saw a graduation in Jacksonville, North Carolina, like none I’ve ever attended. There at the Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune, 136 graduates from 20 different colleges took the stage. They were non-traditional students of all ages and stages of life. They wore different school colors on their stoles and had representatives from different colleges handing them diplomas.

Yes, a lot of “different.” But it was nothing new for the military community. The ceremony represented the 24th year Lejeune’s commanding general held such an event. The leadership there is all about personal and professional development, enhancing career progression and preparing service members for life after Lejeune. 

While the new degrees ranged from associates to doctoral, most of those wearing caps and gowns didn’t attend a single class at their universities’ main campuses. Instead, they had opted for classes in satellite campuses on base or online. Another thing they had in common: The graduates all were in some way connected to the United States Marine Corps — active duty, veterans, Department of Defense employees or family members.

Boston University conferred degrees on eight candidates. Coastal Carolina Community College gave out 63. Liberty University, a private not-for-profit school, awarded six. Distance learning is a big part of the program at Liberty, with records showing nearly 90 percent of their student body in 2016 — some 67,000 students — took at least one online course.

Evidently, that’s not all that unusual. Last month a Forbes contributor reported that a third of all college students take at least some online classes. He said 2.2 million — that’s 13 percent of all college students — study exclusively online.

The distance learning option can be both good and bad for active-duty members of the military who choose to take classes in their spare time. According to Heidi Sharpe of the American Military University, internet instruction provides flexibility, but connectivity can be a big issue for students on missions in remote locations. When they finally find time to do their schoolwork, they might not be able to find Wi-Fi.

“It’s not a 9-to-5 job. They have field ops and deployments and everything. So, it makes it difficult for them,” she said, speaking after the ceremony. “It takes a specific and special individual to be able to accomplish what everyone did today.”

Indeed. One of the graduates recognized during the ceremony was a Marine who had faithfully taken one class each year since 2000 in his quest to earn a degree.   

Then you have over-achievers like Sgt. Jason Steadman, a helicopter mechanic who registered for his first college class in 2017 and graduated with his bachelor’s degree at this year’s ceremony. At the air station where he served in North Carolina, his new alma mater — Southern Illinois University — offers a Bachelor of Science degree program in aviation management. Steadman took advantage of the opportunity to further his education.

“I took nights classes, weekend classes,” Steadman explained. “Once, I was at Camp Wilson in California. It’s in the middle of nowhere. There are no computers, no Wi-Fi, no cellular service. So I had to take trips to the main campus to go to their library because at that time I was writing a 25-page paper for one of my classes.”

Steadman finished a five-year commitment to the Marines the day after graduation. Later this year, he will change military branches and become a member of the Air Force. His new diploma makes it possible for him to go in as an officer. 

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter at @kimhenderson319.