FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. -- For Soldiers, Family members and others within the Fort Campbell community, the path to earning a degree is sometimes rocky and takes unexpected turns.

Deployments, PCS moves and training requirements, mixed in with parenthood, job advancement, bills and everyday responsibilities, can stretch out the time required to obtain a four-year degree exponentially.

"Because of everything going on in life, what could take somebody three or four years, it's taken them seven or eight years, 10 years, 14 years, depending on what their goals have been," said Shannon Gardner, chief of counseling at Fort Campbell's Glen H. English Jr. Army Education Center.

In addition, much of the post community now completes degrees (at least in part) online. When graduation day comes, it is not always feasible for these individuals to walk in the ceremony at their respective campuses. This situation is why the Education Center put together a graduation ceremony of its own for Soldiers, Family members, retirees, Army civilian employees and others using the Army Continuing Education System to complete their degree.

More than 50 graduates obtaining degrees within the 2012-13 timeframe from 18 different schools will participate in the first ceremony of its kind at Fort Campbell. The ceremony will be held Friday at 1 p.m. at the Family Readiness Center. Graduates and guests may also attend a reception immediately following the ceremony at the Education Center.

While the participating graduates will not receive their actual diplomas at the ceremony, they will receive certificates of recognition as well as the opportunity to walk across the stage. Other elements such as the presence of the 101st Airborne Division Honor Guard and 101st Airborne Division Band will add to the pomp and circumstance of the occasion, as retired Maj. Gen. Robert Dees gives a commencement address. Dees, now with Liberty University, previously served as the 101st Airborne Division's assistant commander for operations.

Participants will receive photos taken as they walk across the stage by a professional photographer as a memento of the occasion, and another photo opportunity will also be available at the reception.

One graduate pushed for such a ceremony on post since arriving at Fort Campbell in December 2012, even going to the lengths of submitting multiple ICE comments to suggest a ceremony. A mother of 2-year-old twin girls, Sgt. Angela "Eia" Keeling recently graduated from Trident University International with a master's degree in education.

"For me it was a complete and total [distance learning experience], because there were no bases that I was assigned to out in California," the 101st Sustainment Brigade Soldier explained. "So I actually started when I was deployed, I had wanted to get back into school … Started while I was downrange in Afghanistan in 2008."

While what Keeling refers to as obstacles caused her to take some breaks from school, she is excited to be finished and credits her children for keeping her on track.

"For most people it would take them maybe 15 months [to finish a master's program]," Keeling continued. "For me it took a little longer because of our mission [and] because I had children. But again, my children were that huge boost to keep going; keep driving on."

While Keeling researched the option of going to her campus to walk in the official graduation ceremony, plane tickets, hotel costs and other trip accommodations quickly added up. It is a common situation faced by many Soldiers obtaining a degree, so Keeling said that is why she was so quick to join the planning committee and help others get a chance to be recognized close to home.

"[We] all had a common goal to achieve. What better than to sit there and achieve it together," Keeling said. "Then to be recognized by your peers, your subordinates, your superiors -- it's a good feeling. That's the morale I'm talking about."

Ceremony planners also said this graduation will be more personalized to the Fort Campbell community, allowing unit commanders, Family members, coworkers and others a chance to celebrate the participants in a way they might not otherwise be able to at a university-specific event.

"It's not just to celebrate you and your fellow graduates," Keeling said. "It's to celebrate your Family supporting you or your command team supporting you through everything. It's a big thank you for them as well. Yes it's all about recognition, but it's not solely about the recognition for us. It's also recognizing everybody who helped support us along that journey."

Cathy Owens, education services specialist, urges anyone who might know one of the graduates to attend.

"It's a big achievement, and … you want to share it with your Family and people that are closest with you," she said. "It's great seeing a Soldier walk across the stage and their unit is there, maybe their commander is there and the Family, and they're all just excited and supportive -- it's really a good thing."

Education center personnel hope to make the graduation ceremony an annual event.

"I only expect if we were to do this again that it'll grow, and that's what I would really look forward to," Gardner added.

Page last updated Fri August 23rd, 2013 at 00:00