Globalized higher education a small world after all for Northcentral University Class of 2011

Although most of the 2011 Northcentral University graduates, faculty and administrators hadn't officially met until commencement ceremonies June 11, the occasion looked every bit like a reunion of long-lost friends.

"These folks aren't just friends, they're family," said newly minted Master of Business Administration recipient, Edward Wilson, at one of three receptions for graduates held by the university. "That sounds weird because we've never actually met. But they provided so much help and guidance and even kindnesses along the way to today, I just had to be here to thank them in person."

Gratitude was clearly the theme of the two-day graduation festivities. The tone was set in the passionate and compassionate remarks of the commencement address delivered by Georgetown University Professor and bestselling social issues author, Michael Eric Dyson. He advised graduates that as they step into their futures, to pause and reflect a moment on those behind who in some small or great way made graduation day possible.

"Individual hard work is necessary, and there were no doubt many nights of diligent, lonely study for you, " Dr. Dyson said. "But starting today, look back now and then to reach forward . . . understand what our mothers and fathers did. Give those behind you the thanks they're owed, and count their sacrifices among your many blessings."

As he left for Phoenix to catch his flight back to Washington, D.C., Dyson said he was returning uplifted and a bit surprised by the fact that in the midst of some of the most forbidding landscape on the planet, "this enclave of academic achievement and life enrichment would have found such fertile ground. Truly remarkable."

A fourth of this year's Northcentral Bachelor's, Master's and Doctoral degree recipients were on hand for the ceremonies, but the spirit of the more than 500 graduates who come from all four corners of the globe filled Tim's Toyota Convention Center in Prescott Valley, Ariz., to the rafters. Family and friends loudly clapped, whistled and cheered their congratulations as individual degrees were handed out.

It's nothing short of amazing that an online-only university can have such an outpouring of school spirit, Dr. Jim Savard, a research professor with Northcentral said during a post-graduation reception that lasted late into the afternoon.

Dr. Savard, a member of one of the early Northcentral graduating classes, first became an adult Student when the school was in a garage and such grand graduation ceremonies were still a gleam in founder Don Hecht's eyes.

"Other universities spend millions on football teams and fraternities, and would give anything for this kind of sense of place and family," Savard said. "From the day I checked out Northcentral, I knew I had found a special kind of university. It's top-tier higher education, but more importantly, it's filled with top-tier people."

Graduates and family members circulating in the hallways prior to the official awarding of diplomas, and those who lingered at the reception, each went out of their way to mention the abiding good will and personal guidance they received from Northcentral.

"There are a lot of people who knock online as some kind of diploma mill or think it's somehow third-rate higher ed," said graduate Greg Toler. "It was as challenging as any academic program I've ever had. Not only that, from the person who enrolled me, to the faculty and advisors, to the department chairs, to the people in the Writing Center I can't thank them enough to the deans on up, Northcentral couldn't have cared more."

The effort is genuine and one the University works every day to improve, Northcentral Founder Don Hecht said in impromptu remarks to family and friends of three new PhDs whose dissertations were cited as the year's best.

The research being recognized as outstanding and worthy of special honors today is exceptional, Dr. Hecht said, adding that the University's success is hinged to honoring every adult Student's own exceptional pursuit of academic excellence.

"Establishing and maintaining a quality online-only university has been a labor of love that, like any worthwhile pursuit in life, hasn't come without speed bumps," he said. "I want you to know, you aren't just a graduating class, you are Northcentral alumni, but more important, you are part of a family. We hope we can also count you as one of our growing number of ambassadors. If we have enabled you to attain your goals, then please in turn help enable others to attain theirs."

Such lofty go-forth-and-do-well charges are heard in graduation remarks across the country every spring, said Dr. Melissa Reid Counts Toth, a professor at the University of South Carolina who attended graduation on behalf of her father, Edward Wheeler Counts Jr., who received his Doctorate posthumously.

"A lot of universities talk about advancing student achievement at graduation, but it's usually within the larger framework of advancing the institution," Dr. Toth said. "I've said this several times today and will say it again every chance I get: I have never seen such a genuinely graduate-oriented commencement ever."

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