All in the Family

Relatives celebrate earning their degrees, turning Commencement into a family celebration

Commencement is a day filled with excitement. Hundreds of Excelsior graduates come from across the United States and other countries to celebrate achieving one of the biggest goals of their lives: earning their college degree. Their families are often clapping and cheering them on from the audience, which makes for a heart-warming experience. Sometimes, though, the event is all that much sweeter when family members have pursued their degrees together and share in the experience of crossing the stage. This past Commencement, as in other years, had several family members robed and ready for the celebration.

Raven Short and Willie Short

Raven Short had lots of tips to share with her father Willie Short while they were both attending Excelsior College. At the time, Raven worked at the YMCA in Schenectady, New York, working with the Black and Latino Achievers Program, helping the youth plan their next steps after high school. She was also an academic advisor with Excelsior, and both jobs put her in a great position to help her father navigate the complexities of going back to school as an adult student.

Raven and Willie Short
Raven Short and her father Willie Short relied on each other for support while pursuing their degrees — Raven, a Master of Science in Management and Willie, a Bachelor of Science in Military Leadership — often reminding each other of when papers and discussion posts were due. The most enjoyable part of the journey, though, was sharing Commencement together. Photo: Mike Hemberger

Being an academic advisor “definitely came into play,” says Raven, who kept tabs on her father’s study habits. “I’d say, ‘Did you put everything in, did you read your Message Center?’”

Willie, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, attended Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York, but due to various obstacles and life experiences, did not graduate. He joined the military and recalls encouraging many soldiers to return to school. That’s when he realized it was time for him to pursue his higher education, as well. At first it was difficult, but with his daughter’s help, he was able to get a handle on his work. He remembers studying at any time of day, whenever he could get a free moment. “There’d be times where I travel overseas or to other states, and when we finished our training, I wouldn’t even go to my room, I’d go right to the lobby and sit down and pull my laptop out … sometimes I call my daughter and say ‘Raven, help me do this’ and she’s like, ‘Dad figure it out.’ And then I have to figure it out,” says Willie, who is currently a master sergeant and eligible for sergeant major with the National Guard in Washington, D.C.

Both agree that attending school together was a huge help, despite the eight-hour difference in their locations and enrollment in different programs. Though Raven earned a Master of Science in Management in August 2018 and Willie earned a Bachelor of Science in Military Leadership in September 2018, the two often relied on each other for support. Raven recalls that they would remind each other about paper deadlines and when to do quizzes. She says, “we’d call each other and say, ‘Wednesday your post is due, right?’…‘It’s 11:59, we got to submit it by the time, the deadline’… he was a huge support, plus he understood; he knew the deadlines and the ins and outs.”

Willie adds that it was beneficial to have his daughter help him with the nuances of homework, including APA format for writing papers. He notes one of the greatest things he learned during the process was his daughter’s ability to help other people. “… As a father, you always want to see your child to succeed better than yourself, so this gave me a chance to see her strengths and her weaknesses,” he says.

Raven holds a bachelor’s in communications from the College of Saint Rose but knew she wanted to further her education. As an advisor, helping students pursue their degrees is rewarding, but she always knew she wanted to pursue her own degree. Now that she has her master’s, it helps her in her job; she says, “To be able to tell my story so [students] can go back and get their degree is also beneficial.”

Raven says earning her degree means a lot to her, especially knowing that she persevered and never gave up. She adds how exciting it is to see what doors open up to her after this. Willie seconds the remark, noting having his degree will be beneficial to him when he is ready to leave the military. For now, he is happy that earning his degree shows other soldiers that “there’s no excuse,” and that you can achieve anything. Willie says he is now considering pursuing a master’s in cybersecurity.

No matter what lies in store for them, Raven [who has since taken a position outside of Excelsior College] and Willie agree that celebrating their degrees together at Commencement was a once-in-a-lifetime event. “I think I’m more excited for him than for myself,” says Raven, “ … now to see him be able to achieve his dream and me to be there as well, it’s huge … I’m excited to get my degree but it’s the icing on the cake to do it with him.” Willie adds, “I’m excited to have my degree to check off the box because it’s always something I wanted to do, but to be with my daughter … You talk about it, but I’m like, wow, I’m actually doing it … what father can say they graduated with their daughter at school?”

Vonda Loats, Greg Loats, and Faith Potter

Vonda Loats received an associate degree in nursing from Excelsior College in 2013. Since then, she not only earned her master’s degree in nursing education, but also has encouraged her husband and daughter to earn an Associate in Applied Science in Technology and Bachelor of Professional Studies in Business and Management, respectively, at Excelsior.

Initially, Vonda’s biggest reason for going back to school was to show her children the importance of education. “I also knew what I was capable of and I wanted to make myself proud,” the full-time nurse adds. She explains that her husband Greg attended a brick-and-mortar college more than 20 years ago but never finished his associate degree. “I talked him into getting his credits evaluated at Excelsior and to see if there was any way that he could finish his associate degree. Excelsior was very open to credit acceptance, and he was able to complete his degree in one to two semesters,” she says.

Loats family photo
For Vonda and Greg Loats and their daughter, Faith Potter, attending Commencement was a family affair. They traveled from Ohio to New York with their whole family to celebrate earning a Master of Science in Nursing, Associate in Applied Science in Technology, and Bachelor of Professional Studies in Business and Management, respectively. Photo: Mike Hemberger

“When we realized that it was a potential [go], then we just decided to make it happen,” adds Greg.

Vonda’s daughter and Greg’s step-daughter, Faith Potter, attended a community college after graduating high school in 2013, but the commute was too long and sitting in a classroom was not the environment for her. “She was familiar with Excelsior through my own online courses and decided to try Excelsior for herself, and loved the course structure,” explains Vonda.

That’s when Faith decided to join her parents and attend Excelsior. She enrolled at the College in July 2014.

“It actually made things a little easier,” Faith says of attending school at the same time as her mother and step-father. “It was nice to have a support system that was going through the same experiences as me.” Vonda adds, “We were able to encourage one another even more so because we already knew how the online formats were set up.” The family notes they often relied on each other for homework help, particularly with proofreading each other’s papers and brainstorming ideas.

Faith recalls that participating in the online discussion boards was a bit of a challenge. “The initial discussion post was the easy part. Commenting to three or four other students was the challenge. Sometimes I would have to check back on Saturdays and early Sundays … I was afraid I would not be able to meet the requirements for the assignment on time … I was also planning my wedding!” The busy bride-to-be got the hang of things and relied on her mother for support. Faith says, “Whenever things would become stressful, she would encourage me to keep pushing forward and would try to help me with any questions I had.”

Vonda notes that organization was the key to completing the master’s in nursing education program in fewer than five years, and says, “I feel a huge sense of accomplishment by completing my master’s degree, and I feel that I have better job security.” Her husband and her daughter were a huge help in pursuing that goal. “My daughter was taking classes for her bachelor’s degree at the same time, and my husband completed his associate degree in this time frame. This gave us a tremendous amount of encouragement from one another, and created family bonding that we will always share,” she recaps.

Attending Commencement together meant all that much more to the Loats family because they celebrated earning their degrees together. “I was excited to be commencing and I was really excited for my mom and step-dad. I felt like we were the three musketeers!” says Faith. Greg adds, “I’m very proud of myself, my wife, and my step-daughter for all that they have accomplished. I will never forget getting to share this with them.” Vonda sums up the experience, saying, “I cannot even describe the euphoria that we all felt during Commencement!” They had traveled from Ohio to New York with Faith and Greg’s teenage son and other relatives joining the three graduates. And a bonus was in store for them, as Vonda explains. “Since we were all in different programs, we had the excitement of watching each other walk across the stage!”

Durga and Ravi Yerra

Ravi Kiran Raju Yerra wanted to return to school to advance in his career and to better compete professionally with younger generations. His wife, Durga Bhavani Yerra, works for a company that provides tuition for college, and she decided to make use of those funds and return to school. Together, they picked Excelsior College and each graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Technology in 2017.

Yerra family photo
Durga Bhavani Yerra and Ravi Kiran Raju Yerra decided to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Technology at Excelsior because of its flexible classes, student support, and solid reputation. Attending the school runs in the family, too, because their sons Shashi and Kamal will graduate with business degrees in June 2019. Photo: Mike Hemberger

The couple chose Excelsior because of its flexible classes, student support, and solid reputation. “Excelsior is one of the best schools that not only has a current and up-to-date curriculum but also accepts maximum credits from different sources,” says Ravi. They both noted how the online learning environment was best suited to their needs. Durga notes the setup was flexible for her, and Ravi adds, “Online learning gives you an opportunity to learn 24/7; that’s an incredible thing for a working professional like me.”

It was no accident the two pursued their degrees at the same time, at the same school, says Durga. They both had earned bachelor’s degrees in India and decided to, as Ravi says, “upgrade” their degrees. They also note that attending Excelsior will run in the family. Their 15-year-old son, Shashi, and 13-year-old son, Kamal, will graduate in June 2019, each with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration.

Ravi notes his biggest challenge while attending school was time. “Time is the only challenge, but thanks to the Excelsior College student portal — that gave me 24-hours access,” he says. To Durga, the challenge was taking care of her children while attending school. She says, “I have three kids, and it was a bit difficult to concentrate; however, I managed to spend late nights to complete the required courses.” Both credit each other for the mutual support and help with the challenges; Durga notes Ravi spent extra time to take care of the kids. “I must say, it’s fun. There were some challenges, but we have supported each other to manage them,” says Ravi.

Despite pursuing the same degree and taking similar classes, Ravi and Durga did not rely on each other for homework help; instead, they chose to push themselves independently. “We both are working in the technology field and have at least 10 years of professional experience; we had decided to put our knowledge, learnings, and expertise to completing sessions. I strongly believe knowledge is a process which needs to be acquired by an individual to be successful in life, so work hard to know more,” explains Ravi. Durga adds that though she didn’t ask her husband for homework help, sometimes she reached out to him when a concept was difficult to understand.

Thanks to their hard work, the two earned their degrees and attended Commencement together, which was a rewarding experience. Ravi says it was “fun, exciting, and an honor” to attend graduation with his wife and Durga agrees, saying earning the degree is like earning a crown.

Katrina and Lee Andrews

Before Lee and Katrina Andrews were married, they were already enrolled in the same program at Excelsior. When they found out, they knew they were “meant to be,” says Katrina. “It was fate that brought us together and it just shined a light on the things we have in common,” she says. Fast-forward a few years when they both earned a Master of Science in Management — Katrina in June 2017 and Lee in December 2017.

Both chose Excelsior to pursue their higher education because of its well-known reputation, and because it had degree programs that fit their interests. Lee, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Army, was already familiar with the College, having earned a Bachelor of Professional Studies in Business and Management in 2016.

Katrina and Lee Andrews
Attending Excelsior at the same time to pursue a Master of Science in Management was only the beginning to the list of things the now married Katrina and Lee Andrews have in common. They realized it was a fun and competitive experience to study together as they worked toward their degrees. Photo: Mike Hemberger

Katrina, a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army, says that being in the military means constantly finding ways to get ahead of your peers. She knew after finishing her bachelor’s that she needed to continue her education. Lee says, “Once I completed my bachelor’s degree, I immediately looked forward to the next challenge.” He also adds that it was important for them to be role models to their son, niece, and nephew.

Katrina and Lee both agree that although being online was beneficial because they were on the move due to the military, and already worked on computers, the toughest part of the learning environment was trying to get in touch with other group members to do projects. “My classmates would want to Skype and FaceTime; however, the time difference made it difficult, because that time conflicted when I was needing to talk to my family,” says Katrina. Lee adds, “It was tough finding time that worked for all members of the groups, especially while I was deployed in Afghanistan.”

When things were rough, the couple always had each other to rely on. Katrina says that Lee always encouraged her to go the extra mile when completing her assignments and Lee remarks that Katrina “kept her boot in my back, figuratively speaking, to ensure that I stayed on top of my school work.” They are both competitive so it was fun to pursue their degrees together, says Katrina. “The best part about it was rubbing it in when I did better than he did or vice versa. We were able to compare our grades after he completed classes, which pushed us both to do better,” she says.

Katrina and Lee say attending Commencement together was a great experience. “I had the opportunity to share [it] with my best friend … I would compare the feeling to winning a championship” says Lee, while Katrina adds, “We walked across that stage together and it was one of the most exciting moments of my life. We had such a great time at the hooding ceremony and I loved being able to share that moment with my husband.”

Katrina says earning her master’s was a milestone achievement as she is the only one in her family who has a master’s degree. It is a way to show her son that education is beneficial and important, she says, and it is in preparation for life after the military. Lee agrees, saying they are true believers of leading by example. Katrina notes of their future plans: “My husband has even mentioned going back to school at one point for another degree, and I would support him through that adventure and just might join him as well.”