An Educational Journey: From Segregated Schools to UMGC Degree

Aaron Burr’s Bachelor of Science in Management Studies from University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) was long in coming. He received it in May—in tandem with an Associate of Arts with a focus on business management—37 years after taking his initial college course at a military base in Germany, his first active station with the U.S. Army.  

In the years between, Burr deployed to Albania, Hungary, Iraq, Kuwait and Bosnia and Herzegovina. He took leadership training courses in various locations. But most of his time in the military was spent in Germany and that is where he remained as a civilian employee of the Department of Defense when he retired in 2005 following 21 years of military service.  

Burr was born in central Louisiana in 1965 to a hard-working Black and Native American family. His father worked at a Holsum Bread factory and his mother was a nursing assistant, but money was always tight.   

“Growing up during the civil rights movement was quite interesting. I went to a segregated school all the way up to fourth grade,” Burr said. “I knew back then that I wasn’t getting the full blast of education and I felt deprived, even as a young child. 

“My parents were seeking ways of getting me and my sister out of that environment and to expand our opportunities,” he continued. “In my fifth-grade year, my sister and I broke some barriers when we were bused across our city to a school that was not segregated.”    

At 17, two other life-changing things happened. Burr and his high school sweetheart became parents to a son, Jonathan, and Burr enrolled in the junior ROTC program at his high school.  

“Our school’s program was with the Marine Corps and it was through it that I became interested in military service. The job opportunities where I was were not so good otherwise, and I wanted to be able to provide for my son and set him up for success,” Burr said. “As much as I enjoyed the Marine Corps program, I had more interest in the U.S. Army. So, at age 19, my senior year, I contacted the Army recruiter.” 

He took a year off after graduation to spend time with his young son then began his Army service in May 1984. He began training as a tactical communications specialist at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. From there, he joined an Army unit in Nuremberg, Germany.  

“In December of 1984, when I arrived in Germany, my platoon sergeant was talking to me about education. They were correspondence courses then. You went to the education center, signed up for the course, read the materials, took the exam and then went to the education counselor to have your records updated,” Burr said. “I knew education would help me get promoted in the Army, develop me as a leader, and make me more marketable.” 

Over time, Burr decided to pursue an associate degree in business management. The correspondence courses evolved to include in-class and virtual learning, as well as hybrid classes that combined a bit of both. At some point, Burr expanded his ambition to a bachelor’s degree at UMGC. Many of his previous course credits transferred to the degree program. He was also pleased to receive credit for his military certifications. 

In 2018, Burr accepted a stateside position as a logistics management specialist and item manager with the U.S. Army TACOM Integrated Logistics Support Center, in part so he could spend more time with his son, who has homes in Texas and Florida, and his 9-year-old granddaughter and 1-year-old son. By the time he relocated to Natick, Massachusetts, for the new assignment, Burr had been in Germany for 28 years, more time than he had ever lived in the United States.   

TACOM’s Integrated Logistics Support Center supports warfighting readiness for U.S. forces by handling repair-parts planning repair and supply chain management for more than 3,500 weapons systems. Burr writes and processes procurement contracts, does budget analysis, and oversees the readiness of a multitude of systems that are positioned and used around the globe.  

He said the business management degree “equips me with tools to better manage human capital and personnel readiness and accountability.”   

Burr’s mother, Gloria Vinson, traveled from Louisiana to the UMGC graduation ceremony to watch her son become the first member of the family to receive a college diploma.  

“I thought the ceremony was awesome,” Vinson said. “It was an experience I had prayed for, to see him walk down the aisle and hear him called up on stage.” 

Burr, 57, said there is power in accomplishing something you’ve wanted for a long time. 

“It doesn’t matter how long ago I started. The important thing is that I was able to complete what I started 37 years later,” he said. 

For UMGC Undergrad, Internship Is Step Toward Helping Reduce Impact of Substance Abuse and Mental Illness on Communities

Melissa Riggs, an undergraduate student at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), will begin a 10-week internship this summer with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

SAMHSA, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, leads public health efforts to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on communities. 

“The SAMHSA Internship Program is specifically designed to equip graduate students and recent undergraduates from underrepresented populations to work in the public health field,” according to a SAMHSA news release. “Interns gain practical experience through projects, special assignments or research that supports federal, state and community-based programs, policies and best practices in the prevention and treatment of substance abuse and mental illness.”

Riggs, a psychology major with a minor in computer science, spent the spring semester interning in the cybersecurity department of SAMHSA’s Office of Management, Technology, and Operations (OMTO). 

“As a returning intern, I can say that working with such an esteemed and professional division as OMTO has afforded me the opportunity to wear many hats related to the field of cybersecurity—a credit to SAMHSA’s agile teamwork design,” Riggs said. “The leadership in this department has gone to great lengths to maximize the use of my strengths and to develop me in my weaknesses.”

SAMHSA interns receive stipends of $5,000 to $7,590. Internships are available in the following fields: substance abuse and mental health prevention and treatment; federal, state and local government policies and regulations; health IT; program administration, operations and management; research and data analysis; communications and social marketing; and grant management.

The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars partners with SAMHSA to award the internships. 

“After completing my summer internship, I see myself working in a job that contributes to the mission of enhancing mankind and our united human destiny. I am a natural problem solver, and with so many impending threats to our way of life, I believe that it is my duty to answer the call,” Riggs added.

Former Teacher Receives Graduate Degree and Plans to Make a Career Change

After losing two former students to gun violence, a heartbroken Teneisha Holder decided to walk away from her job as an English Language Arts (ELA) teacher at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C.

“These were students whose dreams and goals resonated with me because they … believed they were the game changers in their families and they also had a large sense of community,” Holder said.

Holder, a 2016 graduate of Howard University, was frustrated with the public school system and wanted to make a change in her life. Determined and motivated, she enrolled at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) in 2020. She has just graduated with her Master of Science in Management with a focus on nonprofit and association management.

“As uncanny as it sounds, enrolling and having the support from my professors were extremely influential in rescuing me from severe depression,” Holder said.

As a child, Holder discovered she had dyscalculia, a learning disability that affects her ability to do mathematics. While at UMGC, Holder’s professor recommended that she use the university’s tutoring services to help her further understand equations and statistics.

During her time at UMGC, Holder became interested in working in the nonprofit world and became involved in educational advocacy with EmpowerEd. EmpowerEd is committed to creating a more just and equitable education system for students in D.C.

“Teneisha brought passion and enthusiasm to the nonprofit management program. Her dedication to the nonprofit sector was evident in all her coursework and in her supportive interactions with others,” said Jennifer Wood, Ph.D., adjunct professor of management foundations and non-profit and association management. 

Wood said a statement from Holder during the final weeks of our class captured her student’s eagerness to learn while providing “a window into the kindness and compassion she will carry into the world after graduation.”

What Holder wrote was: “We may quarrel, disagree or dislike each other but what can we learn from each other and how can that benefit the next generation.”  

Currently, Holder teaches at a nonprofit school for students with autism and emotional challenges. With her new degree, she aspires to find a position as a program manager at a nonprofit.

“I think it would be cool to work for an organization that’s teaching high schoolers to pursue their ideas and entrepreneurship, [sparking them to say] ‘Let me see how I can make this marketable and scale it,’” Holder said. 

The oldest of five children, Holder left some family behind in Miami when she moved to attend Howard University. She stayed in the Washington metro area to begin her career and then found it convenient for graduate school at UMGC. 

Holder hopes to use her master’s degree to make a difference in the city she now calls home. She is dedicating her master’s degree to the memory of students Ahkii Washington-Scruggs and Richard Allen Bandura, who she says, “kept me motivated and focused.”

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.”  

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.