It’s a rite of passage, telling yourself or your family that you’ll be a firefighter, a basketball player, a nurse or some other career when you grow up. Life rarely works out that way, but it has for Tyus Monroe, who graduated Saturday afternoon with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Columbia College.

Monroe knew she wanted to help people, and law was her first thought before migrating to her current calling, teaching. Yet regardless of her profession, her first focus is on those around her. “I need to help [the people in] my community before they need lawyers.”

Tyus Monroe

She is part of the first graduating class of the Grow Your Own program, a partnership between Columbia Public Schools, Columbia College and Stephens College. Honorees earn full college scholarships, and commitments to work in CPS classrooms for four years. Monroe’s next two semesters will be spent teaching at her alma maters: this summer at West Middle School, and this fall at Hickman High School. “The people who came before me – whose shoulders I stand on – they were all with me today, and they got to see me graduate. That’s a great feeling.”

Calvin Collier

Calvin Collier is one of 12 siblings who grew up in Georgia, and is the first of his family to attend college. Saturday morning, he sat in the stands of Mizzou Arena and watched his wife of 15 years, Lisa Conner-Collier, receive her MBA with an emphasis in human resources management. That afternoon, he sat on the arena floor in preparation for receiving his own Associate in General Studies degree.

“Going to school wasn’t on my radar, but once I started, I noticed that I could do it. I graduated high school in 1982, and for me to start back in 2012 was a big challenge,” Collier said. “I went through my first class and saw how well I’d done, and I knew then that I could go ahead and pursue what I wanted to do.”

Conner-Collier has worked at the college since 2011, first in the Admissions office, and for the last five years as an advisor in the Evening Program. During that time, she earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration from the college in 2015. She credits her employer for her education, and her education for making her better at her job. “Working at the college pushed me to continue my education. Part of my speech to my advisees is that I understand, I’ve been there, and these are the things I did to overcome a difficult session.”

Like most Columbia College students, both Calvin and Lisa have juggled full-time jobs while working on their degrees.

Those are just three of the 350 graduates who received degrees Saturday. “I’ve waited 16 months to say these words: Welcome to Columbia College’s Spring 2021 Commencement,” said Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Piyusha Singh, who opened the festivities. College administrators had initially announced plans earlier in the semester to hold a virtual ceremony this weekend, but thanks to a gracious offer from University of Missouri officials, the college was able to hold a pair of in-person ceremonies with full distancing at Mizzou Arena.

Graduates were spaced out among 150 chairs on the arena floor and, in the case of the larger afternoon ceremony, up into the first sections of spectator seating at the rear of the podium. They each received a commemorative Columbia College Alumni Association Class of 2021 mask, thanks to gifts from the Board of Trustees and senior leadership team.

In his remarks to the graduates, Interim President Dr. David Russell spoke of the masks in the crowd, and how it has hindered both our verbal and non-verbal communication, yet hasn’t hidden our eyes. He invited the graduates to look toward their family, friends and other supporters in the crowd. “[Do] you see those eyes filled with pride, relief, joy and admiration, celebration and satisfaction for a job well done? Those are the eyes of the family and friends who love you, who have sacrificed for you. They are the ones who have supported you with all their heart and soul so that you might have a brighter future. … When you started your path toward this milestone that we celebrate today, you had a vision of how a degree from Columbia College might change your future. … The Columbia College family is proud to have played a part in helping you realize your vision and providing you the tools you will need to achieve material success and spiritual peace.”

Dr. Russell also had the honor of recognizing four students for earning the college’s prestigious Presidential Award. Yuliia Bychkovska (Bachelor of Science in International Business, Business Administration, Finance), Caitlyn Spears (Bachelor of General Studies with Elementary Education certification), Ebony Teter (Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Philosophy) and Logan Widhalm (Bachelor of Arts in Sociology) were each honored with commemorative plaques for earning a 4.0 grade-point average over their entire course of study.

Yuliia Bychkovska