SJR Column: Commencement, May 2014
Today marks just a few days from the end of the university semester and -by last count- 1,364 students are slated to complete their college degrees this spring at UIS. The University will celebrate this milestone on Saturday in Springfield’s Prairie Capital Convention Center when several thousand graduates, faculty, staff, family members, dignitaries and friends will convene for our 43rd Commencement. Commencement at any university is always a very special day and, as Chancellor of UIS, I’m proud of every participant. But as I shake the hand of each graduate, I’ll be aware that the path to graduation for some students has been much steeper than for others. I spoke to a few students last week who have made that steep climb most successfully.
At age thirty-five, Dane Vincent is what higher education calls a “non-traditional-aged” student. His path to an undergraduate degree in Legal Studies has most certainly been non-traditional. Dane is from Jacksonville (a graduate of Girard High School) and, since there was no money for college, he went to work after high school as a police dispatcher. Dane eventually managed to enroll at Lincoln Land Community College in Jacksonville and later transferred to UIS, where he reports the Office of Financial Assistance helped him to “patch together” grants, scholarships, loans, student employment and other support to stay in school and complete his degree. “It’s definitely been a year-by-year situation, “ Dane says, but his Mother is part of the reason he wanted so much to earn a college degree. “I don’t like disappointing her,” he says. “I want her to be proud of my accomplishments.” Dane’s parents are going to attend commencement and Dane’s prediction is that they will be “ecstatic!” He is looking toward a career in law enforcement and hopes to eventually earn a law degree.
Samia Ahmad is from Peotone, Illinois and is graduating with a double major in Political Science and Criminal Justice. The daughter of Palestinian immigrants, Samia is the oldest of her siblings and the first to attend college. Though neither of her parents had the opportunity to even complete high school, Samia says. “My parents have always pushed education.” When Samia was a senior in high school, she came to a UIS Preview Day, “fell in love” with the welcoming feeling of the campus and liked the idea of earning a U of I degree in a smaller setting. In order to pay for school almost entirely on her own, Samia has worked two jobs every semester in addition to carrying a full class load. In fact, during her sophomore year, she worked 60 hours per week at Panda Express (a job she loves) and another 20 hours per week in the UIS Admissions Office. Despite heavy financial responsibilities, she has also found time to become a campus leader, serving as Secretary of the Student Government Association and being active in other student activities. Samia will graduate with about $26,000 of student debt – a little less than the average debt this year for Illinois graduates who have debt. Her mother has never visited UIS, but she will be coming to Springfield next weekend to see the campus … and to attend her first-ever university commencement.
Dexter Burns is a Global Studies major who will also be a first generation college graduate a week from today. Dexter attended Chicago’s South Shore High School (which has since been closed) and he is one of only two members of his high school senior class who is graduating from college. Though he always got “A’s” in high school, Dexter learned quickly his freshman year that he was seriously under-prepared for the level of college work expected by his UIS professors. “It was a rude awakening, but I could take criticism and I was willing to grow,” says Dexter. “I got a lot of encouragement from UIS faculty and staff and besides, going home was not an option.” Dexter especially credits the Necessary Steps Program (a special program for at-risk students) for helping him through challenging times. While at UIS, Dexter has studied abroad in Peru and Mexico. He is now a fluent Spanish-speaker and will be pursuing a graduate degree in Latin American Studies next fall at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign – on a full scholarship!
Part of the vision of UIS is to prepare graduates who will make a difference in Illinois … and in the world. I am supremely confident that Dane, Samia and Dexter, like so many of our graduates, will do just that. Congratulations, graduates