MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER Twentynine Palms, Calif. -- Standing before friends, family members and fellow students, enlisted, officer, junior, senior, Sailor, Marine and spouses all stepped toward the Combat Center's chief of staff, Col. James D. Nichols, at the Protestant Chapel May 3. Holding in his hands were certificates of completion representing two to 20 years of dedication and effort by students graduating with their associate, bachelor and master's degrees.
Chapman University, Copper Mountain College, and National University students who graduated through distance learning programs during the 2004 school year celebrated the completion of their latest goal, a degree. For some of these students, this goal was the result of years of untraditional learning competing against careers, moves and family complications, but for all these lifelong learners this closing of one door represented the opening of another.
Students of Chapman University, CMC and National University spoke of their challenges and support throughout their journey to further their education. For Sgt. Benjamin Zuffi, switchboard technician, Communications and Data Directorate, graduating with an Associate's Degree took five years, but he said the journey was well worth it.
"I am a normal person just like the one sitting next to you; a regular person who has achieved his goal," explained Zuffi at the graduation ceremony. "They say opportunity knocks but once, yet here in Twentynine Palms opportunity knocks every day, and it was impossible for me not to answer."
After attending the Marine Corps Communications-Electronics School, Zuffi was stationed aboard the Combat Center in June of 2000. After settling in, the Associate of Liberal Arts graduate, realized he how he would be productive with his time.
"My first class was in spring of 2001. I was apprehensive about school so I took only one," said Zuffi. "I didn't want to step into something I didn't know I could handle, like when you're a kid sticking your toe in water to see if it's warm or cold, that's what I thought of my first class-testing the waters."
After testing the waters, Zuffi took one year off from classes, until he decided on his next goal.
"Before I started taking a full load, I met my girlfriend, Leslie, and saw her bachelor degree (in psychology) sitting on her dresser. I thought to myself, 'you know what, I want one of those.' I began taking a full load in spring of 2002. When classes started adding up I saw the light at the end of the tunnel."
According to Zuffi, for Marines and Sailors there are few reasons not to attend school during their spare time.
"[The Marine Corps] pays tuition, you can take classes around your schedule, they even have colleges aboard the base to make classes more accessible. They basically cover everything-all that is required of you is to show up," said Zuffi.
Zuffi attributed his success to perseverance.
"No matter what your goal is, you are capable of doing anything, but first you have to make that choice, that contract with yourself to reach your goals," said Zuffi. "My advice is to know what you want, you can't be led blind. Seek out the path to get there, know there will be obstacles and you can succeed past them, but above all, always believe in yourself. If you believe in yourself, everything else will fall into place."
After counseling and assisting many of these students for school, Jeff Fourier, Lifelong Learning Education Center, attributes the success of each 2004 graduate to personal effort.
"Although the idea of success may come in many different forms, I believe we all can agree that success comes to those who put forth an extraordinary effort," said Fourier.
According to Fourier, some if not the majority, of these graduates, like Zuffi, are working adults and either required to drive more than 100 miles each way to attend evening and weekend classes, complete correspondence courses and independent study programs so they could stay home and care for their families or are those who enrolled in and completed online Internet classes and or classes in the local community.
"Their willingness to sacrifice, as well as experience education in a nontraditional way, are the makings of a successful person and quite certainly a bright future," stressed Fourier in his speech. "I stand before you today, a witness to those who have found some of the many ingredients of what is success."
Yet, Fourier and several other guest speakers agreed the students weren't the only ones who sacrificed to achieve their goal. Family, friends and co-workers all attributed to the students' success, according to Fourier.
"Family members were invited because we wanted to recognize the sacrifices they made," said Fourier. "Just like the student made sacrifices, co-workers were also invited to support graduates since many of these co-workers are also supervisors or managers and allowed them to take the time to complete assignments and other program requirements."
A total of 60 graduates were recognized by their peers, family and education counselors in this official ceremony which will become an annual event.