College degrees end separation

Many Strayer University graduates gather for first and last time at commencement

August 13, 2006|By PHILLIP MCGOWAN | PHILLIP MCGOWAN,SUN REPORTER

Dressed in crisp black caps and gowns, the students chatted as they waited for the start of the Strayer University commencement ceremony yesterday afternoon at the Baltimore Convention Center. For many of them, it would be the first and only time they would meet each other.

Studying at satellite campuses in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware, and online, the more than 500 students toiled largely in solitude as they balanced jobs, families and life. They had little chance to get to know each other.

Typical college graduates are just old enough to be proud sons or daughters. Many of the students graduating yesterday at Strayer's regional graduation were proud mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles - and their children in the audience of about 3,000 cheered them on.

Wearing a few wrinkles and a little gray, many of the students were picking up their first college diploma.

"I wanted to be here. I wanted to walk. I wanted my family and my kids to see me," said Gary Simpson, 46, of Brandywine, who was graduating with a bachelor's degree in computer networking.

The Baltimore graduation is one of five being held by Strayer on the East Coast this year, with the university awarding degrees to more than 6,000 students, according to school officials. Mayor Martin O'Malley spoke at the ceremony yesterday and received an honorary doctoral degree.

The university was founded as Strayer's Business College of Baltimore City in 1892. But the institution has taken off in recent years as the demand for college education has soared.

Strayer's aim is to teach the "nontraditional student," those in their 30s, 40s and beyond who are trying to meet the responsibilities of life with the desire to improve their education. The school has grown to more than 27,000 students, with satellite campuses from Florida to Pennsylvania. Students from as far as Oregon and Washington state take online courses.

As befits a university with a large national online enrollment, students don't have to show up in person to get their diploma. Strayer also offers "virtual commencement." Graduates can view their names and degrees while listening to "Pomp and Circumstance."

But a digital ceremony isn't for everyone. John Trenholm, 23, of Gaithersburg heard about it, but once he learned his family from Michigan and Florida could make it to Baltimore, he wanted to pick up his bachelor's degree in computer networking and business administration in person.

"I thought, `Wow, that was a little weird,'" Trenholm said of the e-commencement option.

Others such, as Holly Porter, 43, of Glen Burnie didn't give her decision to show up a second thought, although she acknowledged: "I don't know of anyone in my degree program who will be here."

Porter was gradating with a bachelor's in accounting after four years, taking online courses and attending classes in Millersville while maintaining a full-time job. For a long time, going to school wasn't an option, because she's diabetic and needs the health-care coverage that a full-time job provides, said her sister-in-law, Susan Porter.

Yesterday, Holly Porter was already pondering the possibility of winning a promotion in the accounting department where she works.

"She was able to do what she once thought wasn't possible," Susan Porter said.

Simpson, a C-SPAN producer, said he had to provide for his wife and four children while earning the Strayer degree over seven years. At one point, his wife suffered a miscarriage that put her out of work for a year, he said.

A decade ago, Simpson got an associate's degree in electronic engineering technology. He said the satisfaction of getting that degree "was more selfish, more for me."

"This one is more important," he said of his Strayer degree. "This is more for my family."

phill.mcgowan@baltsun.com

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