Whether achieving long-postponed goals or academic excellence, the accomplishments of these fall 2012 UNC graduates serve as inspiration for those who will follow in their footsteps.
On the Run
Thirty-six years after beginning her pursuit of a bachelor's degree at UNC, Sharon Eberhard (nee Schweers) will proudly accept her diploma Dec. 15, but it's not like the she hasn't been busy since she matriculated in fall 1976 with a cross country and track scholarship.
She was a year or more away from finishing her degree when she married high school sweetheart Ron Eberhard (they attended UNC's Lab School) and put her education on hold to start a family.
Since then, in addition to helping raise the couple's four children, Sharon has worked as a jeweler, a Realtor, the assistant manager of a hotel, a preschool director and a daycare provider. Since 2008, she's worked in Dining Services at UNC, where she oversees Starbucks and Einstein Bros. Bagels in the University Center, manages 40-60 part-time student employees and is known for the extra effort she puts forth mentoring and training those who show an interest in the retail food service business.
And she just recently finished her 15th year as head coach of University High School's cross country program, leading the boys' team to the 3A state title. The Denver Post named her the 3A cross country coach of the year, a fitting accolade for someone who'll be receiving their bachelor's degree in Sport and Exercise Science with an emphasis in Physical Education and a minor in Coaching.
"It's been crazy working full time and coaching and going to school the past couple of years," Sharon said. "But all four of my siblings graduated from UNC and I just wasn't going to be the only one who didn't."
She encourages others thinking about returning to college after an extended absence not to hesitate.
"Find a great advisor who understands the difficulties in restarting," Sharon said. "Communicate often with the Registrar's Office and start today!"
Sharon's father taught at UNC and her mother worked in the school's library, and Sharon attended the Lab School from kindergarten through the 12th grade. Her husband, Ron, is director of Parking Services at UNC.
From a Locomotive to the Classroom
Elena Townsend admits that, like many 17-year-olds, she wasn't sure what she wanted to do with the rest of her life when she started college, and didn't have anyone providing her with direction. She ended up dropping out before finishing her degree requirements.
Job opportunities in the area around La Junta, Colo,, where her mother had moved her and her four siblings when Townsend was 5, were limited. She was working as a waitress in 1977 when she heard that the Santa Fe Railway, which had offices and facilities in the town, needed to hire some women to meet Affirmative Action standards. She applied and was hired.
After working for eight months on a crew maintaining the railway's tracks, she moved to a desk job and spent 16 years as a clerk before transitioning into a position as a conductor. In 1996, she completed required training and became a locomotive engineer.
Then in 2003, she was injured off the job and her career as an engineer was over. She was devastated, but it didn't take her long to figure out her next move.
She always regretted dropping out of college, and with encouragement from her husband, who'd corrected her grammar in the journals she'd been keeping for years, she decided to pursue a bachelor's degree in English.
She started her quest at a community college in Arizona. There, she continued refining and honing her skills, and a short story titled "Home Safely" won first place in a non-fiction writing contest. Read the story.
Townsend, who also writes poetry, completed her associate's degree in 2010 at Arapahoe Community College, graduating with honors. A move to Brighton put her a 45-minute commute away from Greeley, and she started at UNC in spring 2011.
Townsend said the best advice she can give other non-traditional students is to search out the resources that are available to them and to get involved on campus.
"Don't be afraid to ask questions and find out about programs that can help non-traditional students," she said. And, get involved. When I started going to poetry readings and plays and things like that on campus, I started feeling like this was my community."
Read one of Townsend's poems.
Graduate Award Winner
Yeni Violeta García, who's earning a doctorate in Biological Education, is among the Graduate School's five recipients of a Dean's Citation for Excellence.
Earlier this year, UNC's Women's Resource Center honored her with the Most Inspirational Student Woman Leader Award.
In 2010, Garcia, a first-generation college student, was one of 2,000 students in the country, and the first UNC student, to be selected for a prestigious graduate research fellowship from the National Science Foundation. Full story
García is the new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) coordinator for the Colorado Department of Education. In that role, she'll be starting a program designed to provide STEM experiences for under-represented students to pique their interest in the disciplines.
Graduate School Dean's Awards
Caught in the Middle
Tekleab Elos Hailu is graduating with a Ph.D. in Educational Technology, a degree that he hopes will allow him to help others from one of the poorest and politically unstable regions in the world succeed in the higher education environment in the United States.
Hailu is originally from Ethiopia, which along with Eritrea, Somalia and Djbouti, is commonly known as the Horn of Africa.
He earned a master's degree in Development Communications at Iowa State University in 1995 through a United Nations program and sponsorship by the Ethiopian government, which included a requirement that he perform government service after completing his degree.
Hailu was fulfilling that requirement in 1998 when war broke out between Eritrea and Ethiopa and he and untold numbers of Ethiopians and Eritreans found themselves playing the role of pawns in a decades-long dispute between the two countries centered around Eritrea's independence.
Hailu was among those deemed to be of Eritrean origin by the Ethiopian government and he was deported to Eritrea without his wife and three children. For the next five years, his contact with them was limited to a couple of clandestine phone calls and a few letters mailed to friends and then passed along.
"It's hard being away from your family for that long," Hailu says. "You can never know how hard until it happens to you."
Hailu was eventually reunited with his family, and in 2009 enrolled at UNC after immigrating as a permanent resident through the Department of State's Diversity Immigrant Visa program, a congressionally mandated lottery system to provide resident status to natives of countries with low rates of immigration to the U.S.
He hopes to use his new degree to help other immigrants from the Horn of Africa succeed as college students in the U.S.
"There is such a lack of opportunity in those countries," Hailu said. "In the U.S. there are opportunities and perhaps my knowledge of communication and educational technology can help them take advantage of those opportunities."
- UNC News Service