By Michael R. Lovell
Graduation days at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee are big deals, and our commencement on Dec. 16, 2012, was no exception. More than 2,200 students were eligible to participate in our ceremony. Combine those individuals with those who graduated earlier in 2012, and there were more than 5,400 students who earned their degrees last year from UWM.
While those are some pretty large numbers, the reality is that the individual stories of our students are the most remarkable. I’d like to tell you about three graduates from December. In each instance, it’s clear that support networks – often those formally offered by our university or other area institutions – had a great deal to do with their successes.
Cheng Thao arrived in the United States at the age of 14 with the equivalency of a third-grade education. He had been born in Laos, but his family left as refugees to Thailand in 1980. They spent nine years in a refugee camp.
He said high school was a struggle, but he was supported through his participation in Upward Bound, a precollege academic achievement program, and English as a Second Language programs. Both of these programs are offered by UWM.
Cheng said his hard work has had many benefits, and he has served as an example to his brothers and sisters, who are all attending college, too. Cheng received his academic diploma and hood for his doctoral degree from our College of Engineering & Applied Science.
Paula Lee graduated from our School of Education after attending UWM part time and working full time for the past 15 years. She’s a single mom of four who says she’s very grateful that our professors were so flexible, occasionally allowing her children to join her in class and once permitting her baby son to sit in the classroom in a car seat next to her while she took an exam.
The third student I want to tell you about is Peter Armstrong. The first week of January 2010 was a bad one for Peter. First he suffered a severe knee injury that would require major surgery. Two days later, he was laid off from his district manager position.
With these life-altering challenges in front of him, he chose to return to college. As a single parent with two children, he said he gained assistance from Pell Grants and social welfare programs that included the UWM Life Impact Program. Life Impact includes a significant scholarship plus academic, professional and personal support. Without this help, he says he could not have graduated from our College of Letters & Science with a bachelor’s degree in geography.
Cheng, Paula and Peter are just a few examples of the special individuals who graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and go on to make excellent contributions to our society.
Our university graduates large numbers of students, but it is their individual stories that illustrate how rewarding higher education can be.