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Fall commencement full of firsts for graduates

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UNG staged graduates and guests in their own family "bubbles" spaced 6 feet apart for a personalized commencement experience Dec. 5-6 at the Convocation Center on the Dahlonega Campus. Some 594 UNG students walked across the stage in 52 mini-ceremonies spread over two days.

University of North Georgia (UNG) student David Esteban Loarca always knew he would go to college.

"My parents didn't have the opportunity to go," said the 23-year-old from Ellijay, Georgia. "I didn't want to take that opportunity for granted."

Esteban Loarca made the most of it. He was among 594 UNG students who walked across the stage of the Convocation Center Dec. 5-6 as part of the fall 2020 commencement experience. Up to four family members or friends stood in front of the stage to see the monumental moment.

UNG implemented the new mini-ceremonies totaling 52 to follow social distancing guidelines and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Smaller commissioning ceremonies for 26 UNG cadets took place on Dec. 3-4 at the Pennington Military Leadership Center.

The advantage was graduates were accompanied by guests throughout the process.

"I'm over the moon," said Esteban Loarca, whose parents and two of his five siblings watched him graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree. "I'm proud of UNG President Bonita Jacobs and the school for handling a tough situation, which allowed me to spend a special moment with my family."

Esteban Loarca made history on two fronts that day. He became the first in his family to earn a degree and the first College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) student of the program's first cohort to graduate with a bachelor's degree from UNG. CAMP is a first-year scholarship program established to provide migrant students with academic, social and financial support to enable them to complete their first year of college and beyond.

"I hope I became a role model today to prove that you can be first in whatever that may be," said Esteban Loarca, who also participated in the Department of Nursing's pinning ceremony on the same day.

Many UNG graduates were the first in their families to earn a degree. More than 1,245 students were eligible to earn degrees and certificates this fall semester.

Brittaney Dyer was the first in her family to earn a bachelor's degree in 2018. On Saturday, the native of Blairsville, Georgia, became the first to complete graduate school when she earned a Master of Science degree in criminal justice. She is applying to a doctoral degree program at the University of South Carolina.

"I'm excited to be at the end of this educational experience. This chapter of my life at UNG is coming to a close," said Dyer, who graduated on her father's birthday. "My dad hates getting older, but this year he gets an amazing gift by watching me graduate. And I want to thank my parents for supporting my educational goals."

Juan Velasquez Tercero, who was in CAMP's second cohort, had a similar celebration planned. Three days after the commencement ceremony, he will celebrate his 23rd birthday.

"Graduation is my early birthday present," said Tercero, who earned a Bachelor of Business Administration degree in management and plans to pursue an advanced degree. "It's a huge moment for my family, too. I will be first in my family to graduate."

Velasquez Tercero also experienced a couple of huge moments at UNG. He and two other UNG students started the first Latino fraternity at UNG and the first Greek-lettered fraternal organization on the Gainesville Campus. He said it was the highlight of his collegiate career.

A highlight of Courtney Hall's experience has been earning a master's degree while working in the Department of Academic Advising at UNG.

"When I saw that the Master of Public Administration degree was fully online, I thought, 'This is exactly what I want,'" she said, after spending 2 ½ years to complete her degree. "It's incredibly exciting and very rewarding."

Hall plans to use her knowledge and leadership skills to help undergraduate students earn their own degrees at UNG.

"I am looking forward to increasing what I do in academic advising and increasing my responsibility," she said.

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