Pillars of Strength Grads Look to Their Degrees to Change Their Lives 

Three of the graduates participating in University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) commencement ceremonies last month earned their degrees with the help of Pillars of Strength scholarship program, which are awarded to volunteer caregivers of wounded, ill, or injured military servicemembers. 

Those UMGC scholarships gave the three women the opportunity to rebuild their lives after postponing career and education opportunities to devote themselves to often-unrelenting care responsibilities. The scholarship recipients said Pillars of Strength gave them hope for the future, even though caring for spouses and children while working and taking courses was difficult. 

“It was a challenge,” said Erika Auro-Romilla, who took family and medical leave from her job to help her spouse, Natalie Romilla, recover from yet another back surgery. “It was really a juggle. Time management had to be there.” 

The surgery was needed because of long-term damage while serving in the Army in both Kosovo and Iraq. During the last two months of her degree program, Auro-Romilla said the work and responsibilities were so great that she thought of deferring a semester—but she pushed through.  

“Nobody saw me,” she said. “I was holed up in my office, just writing. But you have to look at the end goal, which was to actually acquire a degree.” 

She said the value of her education and the MBA degree is immeasurable. She looks forward to finding a position with better pay, more career advancement opportunities and better hours to help her continue to be a caregiver. 

The Pillars of Strength Scholarships were created in 2013 by Richard F. Blewitt, a UMGC alum and founder and CEO of The Blewitt Foundation, and UMGC. Since then, 51 individuals have received scholarships. Just last year, 12 were awarded at once. Nearly 20 recipients have completed degrees. 

Like Auro-Romilla, Margaret Keelty took part in UMGC’s commencement ceremony this month, even though Keelty finished her MBA in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of graduation that year, but being able to participate in the ceremony was important to Keelty because she wants to show her four children—especially her 16-year-old son—that “sometimes the work is hard, but it’s worth it.” 

Keelty had been “a typical military spouse,” following her Marine Corps husband from base to base, picking up jobs but never creating a long-term career.  When the family was in Okinawa, he developed a non-cancerous brain tumor that sent his body into shock. His pituitary gland doesn’t function, and he has not been able to work since.  

“I applied for a scholarship since he was a non-stop Marine since he was 18,” she said.   

Adding to the complications of caring for her husband was the news, shortly after she started her coursework, that she was pregnant with their fourth child.   

“When I look back, I wonder, ‘What was I thinking’ to undertake all of this?” she said. “Now, I wonder, how did I do all of that?” 

Earning the MBA in 2020 accomplished exactly what she wanted. The degree helped her land a position with the Army Contracting Command at the Aberdeen Proving Ground.  

Valerie Lebron-Martinez not only had to care for her Marine Corps husband, who suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury when he was hit by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan but also her daughter, who had been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma when she was 3. 

With the help of the Pillars of Strength Scholarship, Lebron-Martinez completed a bachelor’s degree with a double major in political science and human resources management. She has a second child, now, a 1-year-old daughter. 

Lebron-Martinez pursued the human resources management major to give her the skills for employment, she said.  But she hopes the political science major will help her realize her dream of getting into politics and becoming a lawmaker from South Carolina someday. 

“I am so grateful for the opportunity to receive the scholarship, which has opened all kinds of doors for me,” she said. “I’m so much smarter, and I love that.” 

Motivated to Help Young Daughter Overcome Developmental Challenges, Tamea Ellis-Armstrong Completes Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology

Tamea Ellis-Armstrong’s youngest daughter didn’t start talking when expected—which eventually led to a diagnosis of autism. Ellis-Armstrong’s determination to help her in any way that she could ultimately lead to a psychology degree program at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). 

Ellis-Armstrong just completed her Bachelor of Psychology, graduating cum laude, and now plans to pursue a master’s degree to deepen her capacity to support others with special needs. 

“Now my daughter is talking in full sentences, and I want to learn how to assist people who are disabled,” she said. 

Ellis-Armstrong said the degree program helped her discover how to help her daughter. “So that’s what really inspired me to further my education and attend graduate school in psychology in the future,” she explained.   

Ellis-Armstrong has five daughters ranging in age from 5 to 19 and is serving as a role model to them by completing her degree. 

“This will be my first bachelor’s degree which I’m very excited for—it feels like I’ve been working on this degree since I graduated from high school—and this has always been my No. 1 goal,” Ellis-Armstrong explained. 

In addition to being a mom and full-time college student, Ellis-Armstrong has worked as a development officer at the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development for four years. She processes funding for tenants and owners of Section 8 housing based on a contract with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

“Tamea was a pleasure to work within my sociology courses. She brought many insights and much enthusiasm to her study of sociology and showed a strong capacity to analyze social issues,” said Collegiate Professor of Social Sciences Donna Maurer, Ph.D. “For example, she wrote an excellent analysis and policy suggestion on how to address rising childcare costs, an important issue affecting many families. 

“Psychology majors like Tamea often find that studying sociology is very helpful, in that it can help them better understand the broader social conditions that influence individual problems,” she added. 

Upon graduation, Ellis-Armstrong will be applying for graduate positions in federal agencies and is looking forward to graduate school sometime next year. 

“UMGC has given me the greatest opportunity. With the flexibility of class schedules, I had the ability to attend school, and still work full time and be a full-time mom,” Ellis-Armstrong said. “I loved the professors, and they were easy to work with. If you ran into hurdles, when you were trying to get papers written and stuff like that, they were easy to work with.”    

Christine Hillsgrove’s “Transformational” Experience at UMGC Includes Earning Three Degrees

Christine Hillsgrove has always been fascinated by the inner workings of NASA and it was her dream to work for one of the space agency’s centers. 

Fast forward to 2015.  Hillsgrove has landed her dream job in cybersecurity at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. JPL is a research and development lab that is managed by the California Institute of Technology—Caltech—and receives federal funds from NASA. 

“In fact, when I drove across the country to move to California, I planned my route to hit as many NASA centers as possible to visit,” Hillsgrove said. 

Today Hillsgrove still works for JPL, leading the team focused on cyber threats and intelligence. She is advancing her career with a Master of Science in Transformational Leadership, her third degree from University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). She also received a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems Management in 2007 and a Master of Science in Digital Forensics and Cyber Investigation in 2015. 

“I can definitely say that what I’ve learned from my master’s is tremendously helping me in my current role,” said Hillsgrove. “The transformational leadership instills how to be more people-oriented and how to consider those people’s aspects when it comes to leadership.” 

She added that the management skills that come with her degree, including budget and marketing know-how, are “helping me lead my team and to promote my team within my organization so that we can all be successful together.” 

Hillsgrove’s professor from a 2015 cybersecurity course described her as unforgettable and an excellent student. 

“Chris was not only impressive, given her leadership skills and willingness to serve our nation, but her zeal to learn extends far beyond the coursework,” said Michael Ball, adjunct associate professor of cloud computing and computer networking. “She and I had multiple dialogues concerning the work of my then-employer, the NASA Office of Inspector General/Cyber Crimes Division, and she expressed genuine interest in the work in the digital forensics field. She is a leader who will continue to grow and shine.” 

Hillsgrove’s decision to return to school was indirectly linked to her service in the National Guard. Even when Hillsgrove relocated to California, she flew to Maryland monthly to assist her National Guard unit and play the clarinet in the 29th Army Band of the Maryland National Guard. On a 2020 trip during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hillsgrove got stuck in Maryland. The National Guard found out and asked her to come to the office and help its IT department. Years before, Hillsgrove had worked full-time for the Guard as an IT technician from 2010-2014.  

While aiding the National Guard, Hillsgrove started thinking about expanding her professional skills further and started looking through graduate programs at UMGC. 

“I was getting ready to retire from the military after 22 years of service. I had just gotten promoted into a new leadership position at JPL, and so when I was looking at the curriculum for transformational leadership, I realized that it more aligned with what I wanted to learn,” Hillsgrove said. 

In fall 2020, Hillsgrove embarked on her second master’s degree.   

“JPL has this great tuition reimbursement program and I wanted to take advantage of it even though I already have a master’s degree. Plus, there is so much more I can learn by pursuing another degree,” Hillsgrove said. “I’m really grateful for UMGC having the programs that they do and recognizing that their students need flexibility, providing the online format so that we’re no longer bounded by geographic limitations.” 

Hillsgrove, who retired from the National Guard in November 2020, plans to apply all her new skills in leading JPL’s veteran employee resource group. She looks forward to supporting other veterans transitioning out of military service and struggling in their day-to-day lives. 

“I really appreciate that UMGC has a program specifically for military personnel because that transition from military to civilian life is incredibly difficult,” Hillsgrove said. “Without a university like UMGC, I would have never been able to finish one graduate degree, let alone two or even my bachelor’s.” 

To Anyone Returning to School Later in Life, Graduate Mae Beale Says Make it a Priority

When Mae Beale returned to school in her late 70s to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Business Management, she had already spent several years in a career as a licensed practical nurse (LPN). Others in her shoes might have faced this decision with trepidation. Instead, the Howard County, Maryland, resident jumped in with purpose and confidence.  

Of the decision to study at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), she said, “I discovered that I had to be intentional about it and make it my priority.”  

Over her long career as an LPN in Washington, D.C., Beale worked at health care and government agencies in the area, including Children’s National Hospital, the National Naval Center (now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center), the Washington VA Medical Center Hospital, and later joined the Department of Health and Human Services. It was at the Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid where Beale’s career pivoted toward business and event planning.  

“My supervisors thought I had something special,” she said. “When I was working at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, I organized some large events and everybody was impressed with it, so I started coordinating their IT information conferences.”  

In 1994, Beale established her own event planning business, In Grand Style, and started working toward her associate degree in Business Management at Howard Community College. As a member of several local boards and as someone who is deeply involved in her community, Beale has always enjoyed business, building relationships, and organizing. She has spent the past 40 years supporting her Howard County, Maryland community through activism, civic engagement, and volunteering.  

So, after getting her associate degree, Beale decided to enroll at UMGC and work toward a bachelor’s degree, one class at a time. “I wanted to make certain I had the time to devote to whichever class I was taking,” she said. “I was like the tortoise. Slow and steady wins the race.”  

Beale’s dedication to putting her best into each class paid off. She made the Dean’s List several times at UMGC and graduated with honors, a major accomplishment for her.  

At UMGC, Beale devoted much of her time to helping others. For four years while she pursued her degree, she served on the UMGC Student Advisory Council. Even after she finished her coursework, she continued as an ex-officio member until her term ended in December 2020. In January 2021, Beale was honored as Volunteer of the Month. 

Well into her retirement as a licensed practical nurse, and now as a community advocate with her Bachelor of Business Management in hand, Beale is busier than ever. She has joined a few more local boards, including those of the Howard County, Maryland Tourism and Promotion, the Restaurant Association, the Festival of the Arts, and the Columbia Bright Minds Association.  

With her degree, Beale already feels a greater sense of respect. “I knew that if I had the degree, it would solidify things and make me feel more comfortable,” she said. 

Beale was fortunate throughout her career to have the support of a loving husband and son. “I tell everyone my husband allowed me to be me,” she said. “Whatever ambition or whatever I was doing, he was always my biggest, encourager and my biggest motivator.” Beale’s husband passed away several years ago, but her son remains one of her biggest supporters.  

To others who may be on the fence about pursuing higher education, Beale says to do what makes your heart sing. “Expose yourself to as many possibilities as you can because you never know what life will present.”  

Prince George’s County 3D Scholars: First Graduates of Ambitious Collaboration Crush Myths About Accessibility and Affordability in Higher Education

Your Path, Your Pace: First Graduates Show How Innovative Program Can Reshape Education

As Nailah Gibson looked forward to her May 2022 graduation from University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), she was debating whether to use her Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice as the steppingstone to law school or to a career in law enforcement. For now, law school has the edge.

Gibson is 19—the age when many are just starting college—and she has already earned her high school diploma, associate degree and bachelor’s degree. If law school weren’t on her horizon, she’d be starting a career, building professional experience and accumulating retirement savings while her friends are barely out of high school. More remarkable is the fact that she has accomplished this without incurring significant debt.

Nailah Gibson and Davion Ward at UMGC commencement.

Gibson is one of more than 80 students in the groundbreaking Prince George’s 3D Scholars program and the first student to graduate. The pioneering initiative –based in Prince George’s County, Maryland—partners UMGC with Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) and Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) to offer high-performing students a seamless and accelerated pathway from high school to community college to university. The program put Gibson on a fast track toward a bachelor’s degree without the need for student loans.

“Programs like this allow us to challenge our own thinking about the way education has to happen, reevaluating our myths about access, affordability and debt,” said UMGC President Gregory Fowler. “I love this program, and I’ve been in conversation with others about how we can expand it.”

Like all Prince George’s 3D Scholars—the 3D is shorthand for the three diplomas students earn—Gibson took classes at Charles Herbert Flowers High School and Prince George’s Community College simultaneously. And while the program is designed to overlap one year of high school and community college, Gibson stepped up the pace and graduated from both high school and PGCC the same year. Then, she transferred to UMGC as a junior and whizzed through the remaining courses for her bachelor’s degree.

“Prince George’s County Public Schools is committed to offering innovative programs that allow students to maximize their readiness for college and careers,” said school district CEO Dr. Monica Goldson. “PG3D Scholars is the first program that tracks students from high school through the completion of a bachelor’s degree – at nearly no cost to families. Students take their first college course as juniors in high school, which counts toward earning their associate or bachelor’s degrees.”

By launching first in Prince George’s County Public Schools, one of the largest school districts in the country, the scholarship program offers a high-visibility education option that could be replicated nationally.

The program was launched in 2016, and eligible students commit to the program as early as eighth or ninth grade. By Grade 11, they are following a prescribed curriculum in one of three degree concentrations—criminal justice, business administration or cybersecurity—chosen because they dovetail with strengths of the PG3D academic partners and align with job market demand.   

“The Prince George’s 3D program is so practical,” said PGCC Executive Vice President Clayton Railey. “Through dual enrollment with their high school and community college, the students can earn the first 60 credits toward their baccalaureate degree for free. And they may also be eligible for scholarships. We try to make money not the issue. We remove as many barriers as possible.”

Interest in the program is so strong—each year there are at least 400 applicants for 50 guaranteed spots at Flowers High School—that students are now being chosen by lottery.

“When I heard about the Prince George’s 3D Scholars program, I thought it was a great opportunity,” said Davion Ward, who will graduate in the summer as part of the first cohort to complete the program. “I think getting the degree faster looks great on my resume. And, of course, there’s also the free education. We saved so much money.”

Ward, like Gibson, pursued a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. He is interested in a public service career and plans to take the LSAT so he can enroll in law school. The 20-year-old is currently seeking an internship at the U.S. Department of Justice or Department of State.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been drawn to politics,” said Ward. I think law school would give me an opportunity to explore multiple career options, not necessarily practicing law but understanding the law.”

A third scholarship recipient in the first cohort, Darren Lim, would have graduated in May, as well, but chose to earn a second degree from UMGC, which he paid for himself. He will graduate in December with a Bachelor of Business Administration and a Bachelor of Science in Accounting.  

“I want to be an accountant. I might become a financial analyst, too,” Lim said. At 21, he already has a full-time job in auditing at MGM, the global hospitality and entertainment company. He hopes his degrees will open the way for advancement at the company.

Lim was not alone. The program is designed with the flexibility to accommodate students who also hold jobs, and both Gibson and Ward worked while completing their high school and college coursework.

This comes as no surprise to PGCC President Falecia Williams, who noted that, while the Prince George’s 3D Scholars program requires a 2.5 grade-point average or better, the students drawn to it are “just exceptional.”

“They are in the most accelerated programs. They’ve been recommended by their school. They’re brilliant,” she said. “They are independent thinkers and independent learners.”

Their focus and discipline was further tested by COVID-19. Most UMGC courses are offered online, but PGCC classes for the program were intended to be conducted face-to-face. The lockdown necessitated an abrupt shift to virtual learning, and students had to adapt.

It also meant that neither Gibson nor Ward were able to march in their high school and community college graduations. UMGC’s commencement in May will represent their first opportunity to celebrate in person.

Flowers High School: a proven testing ground

Charles H. Flowers High School is well suited for the Prince George’s 3D Scholars Program.  The 2,500 student school has a reputation for helping students leap ahead on academic achievement and career training.  Within its walls are a plethora of academic and technical programs to include the Science and Technology program, Project Lead the Way, the Academy of Finance, a culinary program and a Fire Fighter and Emergency Medical Technician program in partnership with the Prince George’s Fire Department.  Some seniors at the school have even received paid internship experiences with the U.S. Department of Defense.

The school even has an aerospace engineering and aviation technology initiative, and one 15-year-old student is the country’s youngest certified glider pilot.

Said Flowers High School Principal Gorman Brown, “We’re not preparing our students for the jobs of 30 or 40 years ago; we’re training them for the jobs of tomorrow.”

The school also had a dual enrollment partnership with PGCC before the advent of the PG3D program, and now boasts the highest number of dual-enrollment students of any school in its district. But the Prince George’s 3D Scholars program is distinctive for adding an accredited university, UMGC, to the formula.   

When the program was being developed, the school system worked with PGCC to identify courses suitable for dual credit, developing a curriculum for each of the three degree pathways. Before COVID-19 sent classes online, the school system also provided buses to shuttle students between the high school and PGCC.

The Prince George’s 3D Scholars program doesn’t take admissions lightly, particularly given the relative youth of some applicants. Families sign a memorandum of understanding acknowledging the challenges their child must negotiate related to time management and program expectations. Success can be life-changing.

“Some of these scholars are the first in their families to get a university degree. They are the anchor for their families, especially for families who have realized the importance of education but have not had a pathway to it. They understand that achieving the American dream starts off with receiving a quality education,” Brown said. “A lot of these young people become the shining stars in the program and the anchor for their families, the examples for younger siblings and cousins.”

Both Flowers and PGCC provide advisers who maintain close contact with the students and track their progress. Some students benefit from peer mentors, and at UMGC, students have access to success coaches.

TuMisha Alao is the Prince George’s 3D Scholar coordinator at Flowers High School. She meets with students and their parents and tracks grades and course enrollment.

“The most important facet of my position is building relationships with students and checking their pulse the whole time,” Alao said. “We pay for their books and fees. We provide support. We invest in the students and we want to see them be successful.”

Beginning in ninth grade, Alao said, students who apply for the Prince George’s 3D Scholars program are guided into honors programs and advanced placement (AP) classes. Although they are considered “pre-scholars,” they start to take courses that touch on content in the program’s concentration areas—criminal justice, cybersecurity, and business administration—while learning about career options in those fields. 

“We really start transitioning the students in the 10th grade when they take a college-readiness exam for the community college level,” Alao said. The students are also provided free after-school tutoring services in math to help prepare for the test.

By 11th grade, they have taken a one-credit orientation class to prepare them for college and a few introductory courses in their concentration levels. They are now ready for their first dual-enrollment courses with PGCC. Dual Enrollment courses can be taken online or at the community college.

“We find that the kids like to actually go to the PGCC campus because it changes their attitude about school. It’s as if they go into the booth as Clark Kent and come out as super college students,” said Alao.

She watches over the students until they graduate from high school. By then, Leslie Miller, PGCC’s academic and career adviser for the 3D Scholars, knows them personally. Miller’s role involves progress reports and check-ins to make sure neither academic nor personal problems are impeding their progress.

Currently, Miller has 82 scholars under her watch. Most surprising about this remarkable group? 

“Their independence,” said Miller. “They have innate motivation. It’s unusual at that young an age to know what major they want to be in, what they want for the future. Their academic achievement is also impressive. If you could see their college credit GPAs—3.5 and 4.0.”

She also praised their parents, who “have allowed their students to be college students, allowing them to speak and advocate for themselves.”

Changing Education, Changing the Labor Force

The Prince George’s 3D Scholars program is the outgrowth of an idea proposed by Maryland Senator James Rosapepe (D, College Park), who represents Prince George’s and Anne Arundel counties and is a former University System of Maryland regent. He approached UMGC and PGCC with the concept because he had been inspired by another marquee program, UMGC’s Maryland Completion Scholarship, which allows graduates of Maryland community colleges to complete a bachelor’s degree from UMGC for only $12,000 more.

“I asked, ‘Can we get high school kids to take two years of community college and get them a degree at UMGC for $10,000?’” Rosapepe recalled. “We had to get the community college on board and the school system on board. The idea is to change the model for what students learn in 11th and 12th grades, to make it easier for kids to earn their associate degree while they are in high school.

“This program saves families and taxpayers money. If you do it at scale, you save millions of dollars,” he said.

The Blueprint for Maryland’s Future Act, which overhauled education in Maryland, opened the way for a program that builds a bridge from high school to community college to university. In effect, Rosapepe said, Maryland is “normalizing” concurrent degrees, a move that especially benefits working class families whose children may be scared away from college because of the costs of acquiring a degree.

“There’s also the opportunity cost savings,” Rosapepe said. “By flipping the model and showing a clear, fast, low-cost path to a degree, you can have a bachelor’s degree by the age of 20 and gain two years of additional work life. That’s less cost, more income now for these young people.”

Although accessibility and affordability are hallmarks of the program, increased equity, inclusion and return-on-investment are also benefits.

“We are the front door for students of color, those who are attaining their associate and baccalaureate degrees,” said Williams, who noted that students of color comprise 96 percent of PGCC’s enrollment. “We are a pathway even into graduate education. We have to figure out how to bring more programs like this to scale so we can measure how this is changing students’ trajectory and the economy.”

Williams added that programs like the Prince George’s 3D Scholars are tools “to keep talent in the state, and to make Maryland known as a state for high-performing students.”

PGCC Vice President Railey, who also serves as provost of teaching, learning, and student success, agreed, pointing out that students emerging from the Prince George’s 3D Scholars program are positioned to change the face of the workplace.

“These degrees are all aligned with lucrative career opportunities,” Railey said. “The DC Metropolitan Region is the third largest market for cybersecurity professionals in the country. And marketing and business skills are needed everywhere. At the same time, our criminal justice program covers a broad range of career opportunities.”

UMGC’s Fowler said that while the university gets attention for being a global institution, it is “first and foremost a school in the University System of Maryland.”

“I want to make sure we have an impact in our home,” Fowler said. “The future of UMGC is to bring new types of learning to students. I want UMGC to build muscle around that.”

Jazz Lewis represents Prince George’s County in the Maryland House of Delegates and, like Rosapepe, his early support helped get the scholarship program off the ground. He is also a graduate of Flowers High School, so the program is especially close to him.

“This is a great program. The students get a quality degree. They finish their studies with no debt. And they are prepared as workers that we need for the jobs of tomorrow,” Lewis said. “We should make sure everyone knows about the Prince George’s 3D Scholars program.”

Autistic Graduate says UMGC Helped Her Find Career Confidence

Trying to find your passion is not always an easy task. For autistic people, who struggle with being understood, masking and using extra energy just to “fit in” is common. Finding a place in a professional world or classroom can be double the challenge.  

Claudia Petty is one of those people who has struggled with people’s misunderstandings. She said the learning environment at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) gave her the freedom to feel at home within herself and find her true passion. She graduates this month with a Bachelor of Science in Information Systems Management. 

With her academic journey, she landed her dream job. 

“The interesting thing about UMGC is that it’s really helped me see my natural skills and enhanced the skills that I knew that I was lacking,” Claudia said.   

Her career path began almost two decades ago. After attending Northern Virginia Community College, obtaining an associate degree, and sitting for the Virginia State Medical Board, she became a Virginia Medical Board certified licensed veterinary technician. For 10 years, Claudia helped teach her colleagues to plan and administer cancer radiation treatments to animals. It was tough.  

After a decade, feeling burned out, she asked herself, “What’s next?” 

In 2009, she took an internship with an information technology (IT) company. She was valued for her energy and her problem-solving savvy as she helped people with software problems. Although she was never a “tech-type” growing up, she felt that she was becoming more invested in IT’s big picture even as she focused on the small details that would make a product’s interface with users really great. 

As her career advanced, Claudia decided a bachelor’s degree would help her continue to reach new heights. In 2015, she decided to go back to school at Kaplan University. But it didn’t offer the support she needed and it carried hidden fees. She then attended University of the People. It was free and it provided the learning challenges she was seeking but it lacked a sense of community.  

An advertisement for UMGC proved to be the turning point. From the first class, Claudia knew that UMGC was the place for her, the place where she would succeed in her quest for a bachelor’s degree. Many autistic individuals find the lights, noise, and face-to-face interactions in work and school environments uncomfortable. The UMGC classroom experience was a perfect fit for Claudia. Online learning worked for her. 

When the pandemic hit and employees needed to work from home, Claudia found yet another opportunity. She thrived with remote work. 

In the last few years, her career and her UMGC education advanced in tandem. The skills her professors taught her helped lay the groundwork for new job responsibilities and promotions. Working with other students in a professional capacity in a classroom environment made her a strong student but also enhanced her communications skills, something she has struggled with throughout her life.  

As an application engineer for a global technology consulting firm, C-Prime, Claudia loves the challenges that come with each new project. Discovering her love for workflow engineering has led to leadership opportunities, and she hopes to continue to use her skills and UMGC education to “enhance what I was already doing and to finally reach a place in my career where I’m doing exactly what I feel like I want to be doing.” 

When asked what advice she would give to other students or colleagues, Claudia offered her motto: “Lead with curiosity and find something that you lose hours over. When you find your jam, you can find ways to turn that into your dreams.”  

She also cautioned that “the world isn’t just one thing.” She noted that diversity extends to the contributions of all people, including those who don’t fit the conventional mold. 

“It’s all of us, a quilt that makes all of us unique and wonderful,” she said. “Because when things can make sense, and you know that you’re not bad or wrong, you know you’re just different, there are so many possibilities.” 

Twenty-five Years and Seven Children Later, Determined Mother Celebrates Her Bachelor’s Degree

Kelly Beech put her college education on a l-o-o-o-o-n-g hiatus. 

Unmotivated by her studies, she dropped out of a community college after a year and married her high school sweetheart just as he enlisted in the Army nearly 25 years ago. 

What followed were seven children – a boy and six girls – born as the expanding family traveled from military base to military base in the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Dissatisfied with the education available, she home-schooled them all for years, including a daughter with learning disabilities – dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. 

Then Beech started thinking about going back to college. As the first in her family to attempt to go to college, she really didn’t know how to navigate higher education.  But then another military spouse, who was a good friend, talked to her about the classes she had taken at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). At the same time another friend, also a prior military spouse, was just finishing up her degree.  

Could Beech afford it? Could she do it and still help her children go to college? 

“My friend told me the UMGC classes were good quality. They weren’t just handing out pieces of paper,” she said. “There is enough rigor, but it’s manageable enough. I thought if they could do it, I could do it, and that’s how I started.” 

Beech knew she loved graphic design and she would take some classes and see how it went. 

Enrolling in the fall of 2018, Beech didn’t lollygag.  She took a full set of four classes every semester working toward a bachelor’s degree in digital media and web technology with a minor in human resources. One semester led to another and soon she had an associate degree, then an undergrad certificate in Human Resource Management, and was going full steam toward graduation for a bachelor’s degree. 

After years of doing all of the work for the family, she said she realized she couldn’t keep that up and still complete the classes. 

“At Christmas of 2018, I went on strike,” she said. “I stopped cooking dinner. I realized that school was hard. There’s a lot of writing. It was a bit of a shock to them, but my husband and my oldest daughter learned to cook.” 

She said she learned how to determine exactly what had to be done to get an A for each course. She also learned how to take advantage of the “tons of resources” UMGC offers students.  

She ended up with a 3.968 GPA. That was one B in a Spanish course.  As a bit of an overachiever, she thought about taking the class over to earn an A and end up with a perfect 4.0-grade point average, but her friends convinced her it wasn’t necessary.  

Her experience at UMGC was so rewarding, she said, that she has encouraged her children and husband to attend. She taught her two oldest daughters and husband her techniques of learning and managing online coursework.  

And what Beech learned, especially in her human resources classes, already has paid off in her work as a store administrator for a Safeway supermarket, where she handles recruiting, hiring, employee orientation, and training. 

“A lot of the things I learned have been helpful in my current role in understanding the way people think and process things,” she said. 

When her commencement regalia arrived with all of the attachments for honor societies, she told her son, “This is for graduating in the top 10 percent.” 

“That’s so cool,” he replied. 

Her children being able to witness her accomplishments is one of the great rewards. 

But the journey to get her degree had its own rewards, she said. 

“I waited until I was in my 40s to finish,” she said. “But you can do it. It doesn’t matter how old you are, and it doesn’t matter if you didn’t know what you wanted to do when you were 21. My degree is in a subject that is nowhere near what I thought it would be when I started at community college, and that’s OK.” 

La Sharn Newbill: Staying the Course through Widowhood  

LaSharn Newbill took the End of Life: Issues and Perspectives course at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) as one of her electives en route to a bachelor’s degree. Little did she realize how quickly she would use its lessons. 

“The most challenging aspect of my journey to my degree was not the classes. It was dealing with life’s obstacles,” said Newbill, who is celebrating her new Bachelor of Science while acknowledging the gut-splitting loss that accompanied it. 

Newbill was in her second semester at UMGC in early 2019 when her husband died suddenly, a trauma that threw her own health into turmoil and eventually prompted her to sell their home and move, another upheaval. His death was not the first daunting hurdle of her academic journey. Nor the last. 

Newbill had returned to school at age 50 so that she could advance her career at ExamOne, a company of Quest Diagnostics, a national medical laboratory.  

“There was position I wanted and I had all the qualifications for it and I had worked hard for it. All of a sudden I learned I couldn’t get the job without a degree in research science, laboratory science or biology ,” Newbill said. “They told me to go and get a degree and they would consider me when the job opened again.”  

A TV commercial for UMGC persuaded her that the university’s online classes—including forensic biology—and flexible scheduling would be a fit for her. She also liked that she could receive credit for past courses taken at another academic institution.   

Even a medical diagnosis that required Newbill to undergo brain surgery did not derail her plans. Newbill was still recovering when she began her first semester of classes. Among other things, the recovery included bouts of memory loss.  

She said her professors were not only accommodating and patient, but they also encouraged her, something she credits for building her drive to continue her studies. She mustered that same resolve when diabetes, depression and an auto-immune disease surfaced after her husband’s death. And again when she put the couple’s home up for sale and moved. 

Newbill’s husband, James, had juggled serious medical concerns before she decided to enroll at UMGC. But he had beaten a health scare, was recovering from a kidney transplant and was on the road to recovery by the time she started classes.  

Then things changed midway through Newbill’s first semester. 

“In October of 2018, my husband lost a lot of weight. By December he was very sick and in and out of the hospital. But then they released him in December and we thought he was doing better,” Newbill recalled.  

At that point, she jumped into her second semester of classes, which included the End of Life course recommended by her professors and adviser.   

“Suddenly I realized that I was taking the class while living through all the steps in it—the trips to the doctors, the tests, the in-and-out of the hospital and then the news he was dying,” she said. “That course carried me through his death.” 

The couple had been together 33 years, since Newbill was 18 years old, and James’ death devastated her. Still, she took only a short time off from school before pushing forward, one class at a time.   

As much as he was in her thoughts, the couple’s “big house and all its memories” left her unsettled. So, she put the home up for sale and made plans to move, still keeping on track for her degree. 

“I moved in September 2020, during the pandemic, during school,” she said. The move was not a smooth one. COVID-19 has caused upheaval in the housing market and she ended up living in a hotel for more than a month while she waited for the closing on her new home.   

The move, a grueling work schedule and Newbill’s health challenges took their toll.  

“I was about to quit UMGC. And then that UMGC commercial came on TV again,” she said. “I told myself, ‘You’ve only got one more year to go. Don’t be a quitter, don’t be a quitter.’” 

Newbill completed the program. She has advanced at ExamOne. Her health is back on track. And she’s planning a post-commencement vacation in Dubai, a trip that she and her husband talked about but never were able to take. 

“I’m moving forward. I’m striving for a new beginning when I cross that stage for my diploma,” she said.   

Daniel Lewis and Claudia Palacios “Master” UMGC Together as Husband and Wife 

Claudia Palacios and her husband, Daniel Lewis, have completed master’s degrees from the School of Business at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC). They will claim their diplomas together on the same day. 

“The most challenging aspect of this journey was the work-life balance. The most unique aspect was that my wife and I are obtaining degrees from same school at the same time,” Lewis said. “It has been our aspiration to accomplish our goals together.” 

For more than two years, school was the center of attention in the couple’s Fairfax, Virginia home. Palacios, Lewis and their daughter Natalie, 16, often converged in the evenings over homework. That togetherness amped up when COVID-19 took the couple’s jobs and Natalie’s classes onto virtual platforms. 

“There were days that were easier than others. It was definitely some good and bad but I’m glad we did it,” Lewis said. “One thing I’ll say, there was never a dull moment.” 

Education was what brought Lewis and Palacios together 13 years ago. They met in a student lounge at Northern Virginia Community College, where they were both enrolled. They later celebrated Palacios’s first degree by taking a trip to Paris. On that trip, Lewis proposed marriage. 

Each already had two bachelor’s degrees before they enrolled at UMGC for graduate studies. Lewis has bachelor’s degrees in business management and in criminology, law and society. Palacios has degrees in business management and accounting.   

Lewis will use his new Master of Management—with a concentration in project management—to advance in his career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), where he is a contracting officer with the procurement management office in the Rural Development Division. Even though he works in procurement, he decided to learn more about project management.    

“I thought it would help me become a project manager or procurement manager,” he explained. 

Palacios also works at the USDA, as a government information specialist in the Freedom of Information Act office in the Rural Development Division. Her new Master of Science in Accounting Information Systems promises to open career doors. She said the UMGC program was especially attractive because it let her take courses in two areas of interest: accounting and cybersecurity.   

“Some assignments that I had were really interesting. And I got to work on different software, including some programs I’d heard of but hadn’t used before,” Palacios said. “I also became more aware of not only protecting yourself from spam but the different forms of spam and how to look for them.”  

Lewis and Palacios may have completed their degrees together, but they did so via vastly different study habits, sometimes staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning to work on assignments. 

Lewis jumped into his studies immediately after work each day, tackling readings and assignments methodically, piece by piece. Palacios, meanwhile, waited until deeper into the evening. She was less riled by deadline pressure.  

“She liked to decompress and get her thoughts together before she started in,” Lewis said. “Sometimes she would come up with her best ideas in her sleep!” 

Palacios said that turning their home into an informal study hall probably made the journey to a degree easier for both of them. 

“We were motivating each other. Checking in to ask, ‘Hey, how’s your paper going?’ Or ‘Hey, can you proofread my paper while I proofread yours?’” she explained. “And since we were in two different majors, I could see his work from an outside perspective.” 

That did not mean there weren’t uphill moments. Palacios laughed when she explained that she announced on more than one occasion that she was quitting her program. “But then I’d mention that I had a project due in a few days, so I was only really quitting for one day.” 

Lewis cited “three solid reasons” why he and Palacios chose UMGC for their master’s degrees. “It was an online institution, it was nationally known and accredited, and it offered discounted tuition for federal employees,” he said. “There was also the factor that there was no GMAT or GRE requirement.”  

They coordinated to make sure they were on the UMGC commencement schedule to walk on the same day during the same time slot. They noted that one benefit of graduating together is that they could jointly invite more family members to the ceremony. 

After an immediate celebration with family, they will have a party with friends. “And in the summer we plan a trip to Los Angeles to celebrate,” Palacios said. 

From Homelessness to a Master’s Degree, Yannick Bopda Now Aims for Medical School

For two long years, Yannick Bopda has looked forward to walking across the graduation ceremony stage to receive his degree in full regalia. Bopda officially completed his master’s degree in health administration in 2020, but COVID-19 interrupted plans for commencement. Bopda now can finally don cap and gown and put an exclamation point on a journey that was far from easy.  

Bopda’s path to higher education started as a child in Cameroon. Seeking political asylum, Bopda and his family left the country in 2005 to escape the ongoing warfare and genocide. In the United States, the son of college-educated parents did not initially follow in their footsteps. Describing himself as a typical rebellious teenager, Bopda dropped out of high school.  

“Sometimes teenagers just want go to McDonald’s and work and earn money, and they think that’s enough,” he said.  

Shortly after dropping out, Yannick’s life took a turn down a path that would forever change him – homelessness.  

Upon learning he had dropped out of high school, Bopda’s parents kicked him out of the house. With nowhere to go, he sought refuge in a local homeless shelter. During his year in the shelter, Yannick discovered a resiliency and drive that he did not know he had. Witnessing chronic illness and death around him, he found himself at a crossroads. He woke up one morning in the shelter thinking deeply about the meaning of his own life.  

“There will always be obstacles,” he thought, “but how you respond to these will define if you deserve to get that big breakthrough.” 

He decided that day to complete his GED and then pursue his certification as a licensed medical administrative assistant, which launched his career and provided a way out of the shelter.  

In the shelter, Bopda had to rely on his inner strength to survive. With no real guidance or mentorship, he focused only on the future, hoping that tomorrow would not be like yesterday.  

“I held onto academics as my way out and knew that although life was pretty hard, the best is yet to come,” he said. “I decided that I will not become a statistic but will one day be able to give back to this country that adopted me and always help others.”  

Upon leaving the shelter and beginning work in the medical field, Bopda earned his associate degree at Prince George’s Community College, which propelled him to complete a bachelor’s degree in psychology at University of Maryland Global Campus in 2018.  

Bopda’s journey from homelessness to higher education has given him the confidence, zeal, and courage to take on further challenges. As a result of his hard work toward a health administration degree, Bopda earned induction into the Upsilon Phi Delta Society, as well as the Marquis Who’s Who and National Society of Leadership and Success.  

Now, Bopda aspires to train to become a medical doctor, specifically a gastrointestinal surgeon. 

“UMGC has helped me become the person I am today, to prepare me for medicine,” he said. “My master’s degree has allowed me to gain a better understanding of what it takes to run a successful health care practice.”  

Bopda believes that medicine is his calling. In the shelter, he came to understand that the world needs him to become a doctor. “I saw the lack of medical care and neglect; I saw what homeless people were going through, sickness and loss of life,” he said.  

Yannick is already taking steps to become a doctor for underserved populations. “I hope one day to create a technological solution to provide early detection for the diseases that are death sentences to many,” he said.  

Perhaps the most gratifying part of Bopda’s journey is that today he enjoys the full support of his family, both biological and spiritual. He and his father reconciled several years ago and the two remain close and supportive. “I have a great relationship with all of my family,” he said. “After I received my bachelor’s degree, my father came to my graduation that evening and he asked me to forgive him, which I did.”