How a university commencement celebrates student resilience and tenacity

(BPT) - Every commencement ceremony celebrates student achievement. But the celebration is even more profound when students overcome obstacles to get to school, then strive to continue learning while working, raising families, and other personal obligations. For students who are first in their family to attend college, the celebration is even sweeter.

That's the case for many students at DeVry University, which held commencement ceremonies on June 11 in Rosemont, Illinois, and virtually for students unable to attend in person. DeVry also hosted a day-long event for grads to engage in sessions to prepare for their lives post-graduation. The alumni reception and award ceremony celebrated alums who have excelled in their professions and their communities while welcoming new graduates into DeVry's Alumni Association.

"We are proud of our graduates' hard work, perseverance and determination to reach this milestone," said Tom Monahan, president and CEO of DeVry University. "However, our commitment doesn't end at commencement. DeVry's mission is different than what some people consider to be higher education - to help learners at any stage of their journey create thriving careers in an economy transformed by technology."

DeVry's Career Compact is a unique benefits program that supports alumni beyond graduation. Graduates have access to personalized career advising, online career tools, tuition savings, and lifelong learning resources which can empower their future learning and professional pursuits.

A keynote speaker embodying DeVry's values

Students from a wide variety of backgrounds who overcome obstacles and break barriers to achieve their dreams are a big part of what makes DeVry unique. Highlighting this kind of perseverance was their keynote speaker: entrepreneur and author of "Empowered to Prosper" Natalie Fikes, founder and CEO of Code Next Generation.

"We were fortunate to have Natalie as our keynote speaker. Her story undoubtedly inspired our graduates as they prepare for the next chapter of their lives,' Monahan said.

Fikes began life in Kingston, Jamaica, during civil unrest. Her family came to New York to seek safety, only to face new difficulties as immigrants. Raised primarily by her mother, Fikes left home at 16, beginning a journey of self-discovery after graduating from high school and finding initial success as a sales representative.

Because Fikes believed deeply in her ability to overcome her circumstances, she founded Code Next Generation (now Teen Vocal), a youth organization that helps teens find, develop and use their voices to make a difference in their homes, schools and communities as they navigate life, career and the successful transition to adulthood. In 2015 she was named one of John Maxwell's Top 100 Leaders, with participants of her program receiving White House recognition from President Barack Obama for exceptional community service.

"It was a privilege to be invited to speak at this year's commencement," added Fikes. "My hope is to inspire DeVry University graduates to use their success to make the world a better place."

Combatting obstacles, mastering new skills: One student's journey

Eager to achieve new things and break into the traditionally male-dominated field of technology, Chicago native Corinthia Wheeler graduated with an associate degree in Information Technology and Networking with a specialization in Automation and Electronic Systems - and is one of the first in her family to graduate from college. Wheeler had to continue working while attending school, which meant many long nights and early mornings.

"Trust me, it gets really hard, but I never gave up, and DeVry was definitely supportive," said Wheeler. "Even when I had to take time off, they always reached out and checked in, gave me advice and support resources to help me out."

Wheeler hopes more women enter the tech field. "Once you try it, you're going to love it," she observed. "This is what most women do all the time. We're moms, sisters, daughters - we play so many roles. Just like systems, we connect to everything and everyone. If you like that and do that naturally, this is the field to study, because this is all you're doing: connecting."

Beyond her technology career, Wheeler has goals including working on elections, shadowing someone in local office to learn about running for alderman - and creating a community center.

"I really want to bring a community center back to my community," Wheeler said. "When I was growing up we had those, but now they're kind of obsolete. I want to focus on the youth in my community because I want to show them that your environment doesn't have to make you who you are - you can grow beyond your environment."

Wheeler's advice to other students? "Once you have the focus within yourself that this is something you want to do, just keep on," she said. "Pace yourself. You don't have to put too much on yourself at once. But don't give up."

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