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A small step back toward normal

  • Class of 2021’s rite of passage guided by pandemic protocols

    Friday, May 14, 2021
    Gabrielle Christian

    Graduation exercises returned to the University of Maryland Eastern Shore's William P. Hytche Athletic Center today after a year's hiatus. 

    The university awarded 284 degrees in a “modified, in-person” ceremony with the customary pomp and circumstance before a smaller, more intimate crowd of onlookers all wearing masks. 

    Newly minted alumni were required to demonstrate they were free of the COVID-19 virus, which over the past year wreaked havoc on the traditional higher education experience.  Degree candidates were given tickets for two guests, who also had to validate they were not contagious. 

    UMES successfully navigated the just-completed academic year without halting classes or closing, thanks to a robust virus-testing program and a hybrid class schedule that blended in-person and online instruction. 

    "Our students have done a remarkable job helping keep our campus safe,” President Heidi M. Anderson said.  “Holding graduation is one way for us to acknowledge that contribution." 

    UMES held two “virtual” graduation ceremonies in 2020. 

    As graduates stepped off the stage to pose individually for an official photograph, some opted to keep their masks on -- preserving for posterity the moment symbolic of the fight against a global pandemic. 

    Earning a UMES degree takes perseverance, and the Class of '21 added resilience to the equation. 

    Melody J. Newman, an outgoing 30-year-old originally from Baltimore, toiled off and on for more than a decade to complete work on her undergraduate degree in English.

    Over that span, the mother of three children also worked as a hair stylist, a bartender, a certified forklift operator, a spoken-word performer, in retail and for a company that remodels big-name retail stores.  Her minor was in fashion merchandizing and she's established a design studio to create tailor-made clothing inspired by recent success in creating a line of bathing suits. 

    “It brought tears to my eyes to find out we were going to have an in-person commencement,” Newman said.  “I am fully prepared to take on the world and whatever I have coming next.” 

    Angelica Maria Garcia of El Monte, Calif., the first in her family to graduate from college, earned her bachelor's degree in applied design with a concentration in commercial photography. 

    Garcia, 48, is the daughter of a migrant farm worker from Mexico and housekeeper from El Salvador “who received only a primary education in their countries, but who came to the United States with big dreams for their future.” 

    Cheered on by her adult daughter, Garcia wants “to tell people's stories visually.”  She's among 11 people offered a coveted spot in a graduate program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. 

    “I'm not only an artist,” she said, “I want to be an activist, too.” 

    Zachary J. Seiler of Stevensville, Md., already has a job lined up after receiving his bachelor's degree in aviation science.  He's headed to New London, Conn., where he'll enter officer candidate school with a goal of flying U.S. Coast Guard helicopters. 

    He leaves UMES with his commercial pilot's license, flight instructor certification and two years of active military duty credit, thanks to the Coast Guard College Student Pre-commissioning Initiative program. 

    “I've had an awesome experience here - nothing but good things to say about the university,” said Seiler, a member of the Richard A. Henson Honors Program who graduated with “highest honors.” 

    Brice E. Massey, also an honor graduate with a degree in biology, is eyeing a career in healthcare.  The commuter student from Greenbackville on Virginia's Eastern Shore initially considered pursuing a career in pharmacy, but is leaning toward applying for graduate school to become a physician assistant. 

    Massey called graduation “an accomplishment, but at the same time, you have to look at the next stage on what I have to get done to get into one of those (graduate) programs.” 

    Gabrielle Christian of Elkridge, Md., a community college transfer student who flourished and made the dean's list, delivered the student commentary. 

    “I did not give up on myself when I did not go to (a four-year) college straight out of high school,” the hospitality-tourism management major said, adding “I was able to grow as a person by attending UMES.” 

    She said she auditioned to speak at commencement because she thought would resonate with peers “to keep following their dreams.” 

    Christian is headed to graduate school at Bowie State University, where she will pursue a master's degree in human resources development. 

    Christian's speech was followed by state lawmaker Sheree L. Sample-Hughes, speaker pro tem of the Maryland House of Delegates, who delivered the commencement address. 

    “Class of 2021,” Sample-Hughes said.  “Nothing will change unless you make it change.” 

    Anderson then presented an honorary degree of public service to Dr. John B. King Jr., the nation's 10th U.S. Secretary of Education under former President Barack Obama.  King's paternal grandmother was an 1894 graduate of Princess Anne Academy, the forerunner to UMES. 

    King spoke briefly, telling the audience “I'm grateful for this institution” that gave Estelle Livingston Stansberry, who married a descendant of enslaved people, the opportunity to get a formal education.  He told UMES graduates they “have a sacred trust to carry on that tradition” that helped Stansberry aspire to a better life than her ancestors, and challenged them to “work to build a more just future.”  

    Among the first graduates to accept a degree after King received his honor called the UMES campus home as a child and crossed the stage in the building bearing her late father's name. 

    Pamelia Hytche-Hunter received a traditional neck drape, a “hood,” signifying she completed her doctoral degree work in organizational leadership, finishing a four-decade journey. 

    Pam, as she is best known, at age 66 became the last of Deloris and UMES President William P. Hytche's three children to join the ranks of UMES alumni. 

    Hytche-Hunter considered pursuing a doctorate at the University of Texas in the early 1980s, but put it off because of time-consuming family obligations as a mother of two and the spouse of a Baptist pastor. 

    “At that time, I was the only child … who did not attend the greatest institution in America, which for my father is the University of Maryland Eastern Shore,” she said.

    She described receiving a UMES degree as a "dream come true" that at long last completes a special goal on her bucket list.