In May, two UMUC graduates stood in the undergraduate robing room at the Comcast Center in College Park, MD, preparing to walk the stage and receive their degrees. One came from nearby Virginia; the other had traveled from the middle of Georgia.
Both had earned their bachelor's degrees in computer-related fields after 10 years of studying while serving in the Air Force. Both knew what it felt like to reprioritize their coursework in the face of greater challenges, such as taking on an overseas combat mission or helping out in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
And both were in for a surprise.
Because many classes at UMUC are held online, Commencement offers an opportunity for students to finally connect a name to a face.
"I was actually wondering if I was going to be able to recognize anybody from my classes," says Broderick Carroll, who earned his bachelor's degree in computer networks and security.
And suddenly, he did recognize someone.
"I approached him, and told him that I knew him from somewhere, and instantly our brains passed a spark, and we connected as we did back in 2005," recalls Richard Balanon, who earned a bachelor's degree in cyber security.
Nearly 10 years earlier, the two had been chosen for a special mission in Iraq. Balanon, Carroll, and their fellow servicemembers had formed a tight bond during the 18-month training and deployment but lost touch after returning to their respective bases in Maryland and Texas.
But they didn't lose sight of their goals. The men, both of whom had tried other colleges, stuck with UMUC through thick and thin.
"I think UMUC was the ninth school that I've gone to," Carroll said.
He says he began attending UMUC on recommendation from friends and advisors in the military community, but he stayed with the program because of its flexibility.
"I've always been kind of a [temporary duty assignment] guy. I've always been deployed or doing temporary duty in a lot of different locations, so going to a brick and mortar school was out of the question," says Carroll. "The professors at UMUC were phenomenal when I had to go TDY. I might have been working 20-hour shifts or just doing all kind of craziness, and I couldn't really get to my schoolwork in a timely manner. When I let my professors know about it, they were more than willing to work with me."
Balanon agrees and says he also appreciates that UMUC accepted transfer credits and even gave him credit for military training. He has a one-year-old son, so during his final year at UMUC, he found himself balancing his military career, school work, job applications, and fatherhood, all of which involved "late nights, coffee, Red Bull, any kind of energy drink to keep me going and get the work done," he says with a laugh.
Now, Carroll and Balanon are both going on to bigger things. Carroll, who is still on active duty and works as a protective communications team member with the 51st Combat Communications Squadron at Robins AFB in Georgia, has been accepted to the master's program in information technology with a specialization in homeland security management at UMUC, and hopes to eventually move to Washington, D.C., to pursue a career with the federal government.
Balanon, who recently separated from the Air Force after 13 years of honorable service, will soon begin his next chapter as a Foreign Service Specialist in Information Management with the U.S. State Department. He expects to find out his first overseas assignment in October.
They are both hopeful their paths will cross once again.
"It was truly a blessing to connect again with a past friend and see that we both had a bright future ahead of us," says Balanon.