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Grads reflect on challenging year, commencement ceremony

May 12, 2021
A man in a cap and gown
A man in a cap and gown

KOKOMO, Ind. — When Twanna Jiles found out Indiana University Kokomo would have in-person Commencement this spring, and that as a 2020 graduate she could participate, she knew she had to go.

“I’m ecstatic, I can’t even put it in words,” the Peru resident said. “This is for my mom, who passed away a year ago from COVID, and can’t be here to see me walk. I worked really hard to accomplish my goals, and this means everything to me.”

Jiles was among the approximately 250 graduates participating in the outdoor ceremony. It included not only the Class of 2021, but also the Class of 2020, whose Commencement was held virtually only because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many of the graduates shared stories of challenges they overcame in the last year, and of the family members who helped them achieve their goals.

Calvin Rausch sported an IU trident created out of Legos, with a Luke Skywalker mini figure climbing it, on his mortarboard. As the first in his family to graduate from college, it meant a lot to him, and to his family, for him to be part of the ceremony.

“It’s definitely a unique experience,” he said, adding that it was a challenging year, with online and in-person classes in the fall. Plus, he had student teaching both virtually and in-person during the spring semester.

“It’s something I wouldn’t trade for anything,” the Winamac resident said.

For Master of Business Administration graduate Sarah Byrd, the day was about family.

“I have worked really hard, but I couldn’t have done this without the love and support of my family,” said Byrd, from Kokomo. “I told my husband this is not my graduation day, it’s our graduation day. He was along with me, supporting me and helping me with all the responsibilities we have in our life. It definitely took love, determination, and grit.”

Earning a degree while working, and parenting her sons — ages 10, 6, and three-year-old twins, was a challenge, especially with the older boys doing school online for part of the time. But Byrd said it’s worth it for what she’s showing them.

“I want them to see that hard work pays off, and if you set your mind to something, you can do it,” she said.

Kokomo resident Jessica Monize also wants to set an example for her blended family of seven children. She had gone to college previously, but not completed her degree.

“It’s taken me a little longer than most, but I did it, I’m here,” Monize said. “I was super close to finishing, and I wanted to get it done and be a role model for my kids. School was something I was intimidated by in the past. Accomplishing this is huge.”

For Odette Martinez, Commencement was the payback to her family for the sacrifices they made for her because they immigrated to the United States to make her education possible.

“This means all the hard work my family has done paid off,” she said. Finding the funds to continue was difficult during the pandemic, as she struggled to work. Now that she’s graduated, she’s moving to Washington, with plans to attend veterinary school.

Liam Ireland’s family was thrilled he was graduating.

“It means quite a lot to all of us,” he said, especially because of the challenges of the last year. “These past couple of years, it’s been awkward trying to figure things out sometimes. Being here today is pretty cool.”

Kellie Martin said completing clinicals for her associate degree in radiography was complicated by COVID-19, and she’s proud to have persisted and finished the program.

“We made it across the finish line, even during a pandemic,” the Tipton resident said. “It was difficult, but we did it.”

Education is KEY at Indiana University Kokomo.

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