Surrounded by a festive crowd of family, friends, and well-wishers, 62 students representing 24 colleges and universities earned recognition for their degrees at the National Training Center’s Consolidated Graduation on May 18. The ceremony at Center Chapel celebrated the 20th class to cross the stage at Fort Irwin, Calif.
Members of the graduating class collectively achieved one vocational certificate, 27 associate degrees, 21 bachelor’s degrees, and 13 master’s degrees. For many, the event marked the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice. In his address at the graduation, Brig. Gen. Jeff Broadwater, commanding general of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, acknowledged the adversity Soldiers and their families face while pursuing an education. He commended the new graduates for their perseverance.
“In order to achieve your goal you had to put in long hours, late nights, and most likely time that you would have otherwise been spending with your family,” he said. Yet despite the challenges, he encouraged the Class of 2017 to embrace a lifelong pursuit of knowledge. “Even if the path to continued learning is not a formal one, keep learning. The human brain needs exercise, just as much as muscles and heart do, maybe even more. The best way to keep your mind sharp is to continue to experience and learn new things.”
He also urged the graduates to serve as mentors within their units and communities, noting the important role they can play in fostering the educational aspirations of those around them.
“By completing your degree, you have already become an example for other Soldiers to emulate,” he said. “Your hard work and dedication to education serves as an inspiration to others.”
His sentiments were echoed by Sgt. Maj. Randy Cheadle, one of three student speakers to address the graduating class.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” Cheadle said, adding, “I appeal to everyone in attendance tonight — those who have walked this stage before, who will walk it again, and those who have not but will in the future — to commit to establishing goals to give back to our communities and make them better tomorrow than what they are today.”
After crossing the stage to receive their diplomas, graduates and their families spilled onto the chapel lawn to celebrate and pose for photographs in the warm desert evening. Many expressed pride and relief at accomplishing their goals, as well as gratitude for those who helped them along the way.
“It’s been a long journey,” said Pfc. Patrick Baariu, who earned an associate degree in accounting. “Originally I’m from Kenya. I’ve worked in Iraq and Afghanistan, then later I joined there to serve my country. And my country has paid me by giving me my associate [degree], and I’m still willing to go ahead doing what I do, because I love it.”
Other graduates outlined plans to head back to the classroom, either to wrap up their current programs or to pursue more advanced degrees. Staff Sgt. Tineshia Moore, who has been taking classes back-to-back since last May, said it has been tough at times to balance Army life with being a spouse, a mom, and a student. She will officially complete her bachelor’s degree in social and criminal justice in October.
“It was just finding that balance and staying determined,” Moore said.
Expanding opportunities for students
Helping students balance life and school is the mission of the Fort Irwin Education Center, where an expanding list of schools and programs means service members and their families can take advantage of more opportunities than ever before, according to Education Services Officer John Valentine. Despite Fort Irwin’s remote location, online programs provide access to a wide range of degrees at all levels, and two resident schools – Park University and Barstow Community College – hold classes on post.
Valentine urged those who are considering a degree to visit the center and talk with an academic counselor. Counselors can help current and prospective students explore degree programs and the many financial aid opportunities that are available.
“Don’t be afraid. That’s the biggest thing,” he said. “And don’t look at it like you have to do it all at one time. You can take it bits and pieces. You can do one class at a time.”
The center is designed to help students navigate the challenges presented by military life, such as frequent moves, deployments, and family obligations, Valentine added. For example, a unique program at Fort Irwin, called Desert University, gives commanders the ability to allow Soldiers three hours a day, twice a week to go to school. In addition, the Education Center offers classrooms, Wi-Fi, and a computer lab to facilitate learning.
Upcoming changes will provide students with even more choices and flexibility, said Valentine. The center is currently working to add Grand Canyon University as a residential school on post. It is also exploring new certificate programs with UCLA, and will offer a Master of Business for Veterans through USC. Prospective students can interact with the schools and learn more about their options at the upcoming Fort Irwin Education Fair in September, which will feature more than 50 schools and agencies.
The growing number of schools has also made a difference at Fort Irwin’s annual graduations.
“With more schools, we bring in more graduates, which means more recognition and the ability for more Soldiers to possibly stay in the Army based on education as well,” Valentine said.
For the Class of 2017, that recognition was hard-earned, he added.
“Congratulations on a job well done,” he said. “You have worked hard, you should be proud of your accomplishments. But just remember, it doesn’t stop. It keeps going.”