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May 27, 2011

Story behind the numbers as ULM sets record-breaking graduation

They say records are meant to be broken, and judging from raw figures on the registrar's list last week, the University of Louisiana at Monroe hit it out of the ballpark.

Last Saturday, as family and friends gathered to celebrate that annual rite of passage known as commencement, University of Louisiana at Monroe officials were particularly proud to see that a total of 863 students earned their degrees, topping by more than 100 students the school's previous record set last spring.

Spring commencement exercises were held Saturday, May 21, in Fant-Ewing Coliseum on the ULM campus.

ULM President Nick Bruno conferred degrees to an estimated 740 students who participated in Saturday's event.

Twelve top graduates earned 4.00 grade point averages, another record-breaking number for the university.

"I am immensely excited about these numbers," said Bruno. "I think it shows the university's commitment to the success of our students. I have great respect for our faculty and staff because this record-breaking graduation reflects their focused efforts on the academic goals set by ULM some years ago. It is rewarding to see their hard work, and the work of our students, paying off."

But behind the sheer numbers are the very real people whose degree took years of perseverance, the kind of perseverance that would not be derailed in spite of overseas deployments and homegrown hurricanes.

National Guardsmen Matthew Nappier of West Monroe and Michael Mahan of Monroe are both earning degrees this weekend.

Like many working non-traditional students, they are not technically counted in the state's "on-time" graduation numbers because their time to completion took longer than usual.

Nappier is earning a degree in general studies with a concentration in social science.

He joined the National Guard in the shadow of 9-1-1, while he was still a high school senior. Eventually deployed to Afghanistan in March 2004, he came back home a year later only to be sent to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

"It was just enough to mess me up with school, so it was probably 2006 when I really got started," he said. "Then I got a promotion at work and was not able to go to school during the day."

Nappier said online history courses and the patience of faculty helped keep him on track.

He joined his wife, Malissa, who earned a degree in speech-language pathology on Saturday.

Nappier said he can use the rest of his GI Bill benefits to pay for her master's degree, while he continues to work and plan on an eventual master's degree himself.

"Online is the way to go. I push it to anybody I can. I've encouraged at least four other people with active guard status to get their degree," he said.

Michael Mahan joined the National Guard in March 1996. Like, Nappier, he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2004 and sent to the front lines of a hurricane-ravaged New Orleans when he returned stateside in 2005.

Shortly after that, Hurricane Gustav interfered with his educational goals, followed by a deployment to Germany for about three months.

On Saturday, he earned his bachelor of science in nursing.

"I almost didn't go back to nursing school when I went to Germany," he said. "Sometimes you just get so frustrated with constantly being pulled off track."

But, with a nudge from his wife, Jessica, Mahan stuck it out, taking online classes wherever possible. Now 32, Mahan is glad he stuck it out and is looking forward to retirement from the National Guard with full benefits in five more years.

"It would really be a poor decision to quit (military duty) now," he said. "I can do five more years and retire at 37 and that would be a good supplemental income ... and my wife just won a scholarship from the Air Force to complete her master's degree."

His only complaint?

"She is going in as a commissioned officer, after I've served all these years as a non-commissioned officer," he laughed. "But I'm really proud of her."

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