The journey to graduation is traditionally characterized by challenges as students balance work and social life while fulfilling the demanding academic requirements to earn a degree. This year, however, has been unlike any time in recent memory as the coronavirus pandemic has forced everyone to adapt to a new normal.
Meeting the challenge are nearly 3,500 Wayne State University graduates, who will celebrate their successful completion of studies during the winter commencement ceremonies on Tuesday, Dec. 15.
As was the case for the spring graduation, the university will hold a virtual commencement due to the need to continue practicing social distancing as a necessary public health measure. The university’s colleges, schools, and various other departments and divisions have once again collaborated with the Office of Marketing and Communications to plan the event.
The degree conferral presentations for each school and college will be available on wayne.edu/commencement.
The Class of 2020 includes graduates from all walks of life, who have demonstrated grit and undaunting drive to make it to the finish line despite the pandemic. Their stories resonate with the phrase Warrior Strong, which has become synonymous with Wayne State’s students.
Here are the stories of five December 2020 graduates.
Kristin Cicala is graduating debt free thanks to a variety of academic and private scholarships, as well as working three jobs. Upon receiving her bachelor’s in fine arts with a major in graphic design and a minor in interactivity and animation through the College of Fine, Performing and Communication Arts, the 21-year-old Dearborn Heights resident plans to work full time in the graphic design industry while building her freelance career. Cicala’s also pursuing a certificate in entrepreneurship and innovation through the Mike Ilitch School of Business.
Cicala’s interest in art was sparked as a student at Divine Child High School. “I always loved to draw and design things. I took art classes and realized that graphic arts was my passion,” Cicala said.
Her dedication to art continued when she enrolled at Wayne State and began logging a daily commute from home. “As a commuter student, I was worried that I wouldn’t make friends or feel like I had a true college experience since I was living at home. Upon coming to the university, I met so many great people in my program that I will be friends with beyond my college years.”
Cicala said balancing three jobs, pursuing her academic program and maintaining a social life proved to be a challenge, but one that paid off in more ways than one. “I’m graduating debt free after three and a half years and, in 2019, I became president of the AIGA Wayne State, our student organization for graphic designers. I have been fortunate to gain valuable leadership skills while also expanding my network and learning from other people in the industry.”
Cicala admitted that navigating her final year at Wayne State during the pandemic has been difficult, but she said she’s eager to enter the work force. “The knowledge and skills that I have gained during my years at Wayne State University have been very beneficial. I want to stay in Detroit after graduation – it’s a great place for design.”
On graduation day, Cicala plans to celebrate at home with family. “Since the restaurants will be closed for dining in, I’ll order my favorite takeout.”
Devon France, 30, has dreams of starting her own nonprofit offering services to people who struggle with mental illness and addiction. She’ll be one step closer on Dec. 15, when she receives her master’s from the School of Social Work.
A first-generation college student, the Port Huron resident earned a bachelor’s in Social Work at Wayne State in 2018. France said a major driving force behind her academic success was the support of her family, friends and staff at Wayne State.
“Throughout my years of obtaining my graduate degree, I have struggled with my own mental health recovery and recovery from addiction. I have been sober since Oct. 27, 2011, at which time I decided I wanted to be a part of the professional people who help others overcome addiction and mental health issues. As I continued through my college career, and especially through this pandemic, I have struggled with my own mental health symptoms of bipolar disorder.”
France said she has received support from Wayne State’s advisors, the team at Student Disability Services and her professors. “I don’t know how I would have made it this far without the great help that they provided along the way, especially with the pandemic.”
Following graduation, France will continue to work full time as a support specialist with St. Clair County Mental Health and hopes to eventually pursue a Ph.D. She said she’s especially excited at the prospect of spending more time with her two children and boyfriend, Jason.
“My family has been very supportive and encouraging as I’ve maintained demanding work and school schedules. For graduation, I look forward to eating at home with family.”
Carla George-Lewis, 30, began her academic journey at Wayne State in 2008, when she enrolled in developmental mathematics courses, spending much of her time in the Math Resource Center. “The center was great. They worked with me and led me through to an understanding of mathematics, which was always a challenging subject for me.”
A first-generation college student, the lifelong Detroiter said she watched her best friend and godsister — who both attended Wayne State — earn their bachelor’s and master’s degrees while she was still working on her undergraduate degree. “No matter how long it took, I just had to get it done. Regardless of all the obstacles that came my way, I was focused on achieving my goal.”
Along the way, George-Lewis faced daunting challenges that not only interrupted her studies, but threatened her life. “I have sickle cell anemia, which has forced me to withdraw from courses several times. In 2009, I contracted H1N1 and ended up on life support for several days. But, I slowly made it back and am thankful for all of the support I received.”
Eventually, she reached out to Disability Student Services to obtain accommodation letters, and for the last five years has worked non-stop toward her bachelor’s in elementary education with a concentration in mathematics in the College of Education. “I plan to teach the subject that was so challenging to me and show other students that they can do anything.”
This semester, George-Lewis is student teaching as an intern in the Detroit Public Schools Community District. The district recently asked her to participate in a panel discussion during orientation for incoming interns.
George-Lewis plans to pursue a master’s in the fall and enjoy more time with her husband, Christopher, a 2017 College of Engineering graduate, and their 10-year-old daughter, Casha.
Tiffany Holmes chose Wayne State to earn her bachelor of science in nursing (B.S.N.), even though she had already been accepted into Oakland University’s accelerated B.S.N. program.
The 24-year-old Inkster native said she received some pushback when she made that decision.
“I politely denied my admission to Oakland University’s B.S.N. program and waited more than a year to apply to Wayne State. Many people asked me, ‘Why did you do that? You could’ve been a registered nurse by now.’ Well, I believed that Wayne State was a much better fit for me based on the surrounding community, reputation and diverse student population. I couldn’t be happier with the decision I made, and I look forward to becoming an alumna of the greatest alma mater!”
Holmes balances a busy academic and work schedule. She works part time as a medication manager at Anthology Senior Living, and has accepted an offer for a registered nurse position in the Intensive Care Unit at Ascension Rochester.
Looking to the future, Holmes doesn’t foresee a separation from her alma mater anytime soon. “I will continue to work with the College of Nursing even after graduation and eventually pursue my doctor of nursing practice here as well.”
Kianna Mateen has followed her academic and career plan with laser focus since arriving on campus as a freshman. The 23-year-old Detroit resident will realize the completion of phase one of her plan when she receives her bachelor’s in global supply chain management and marketing with University Honors from the Mike Ilitch School of Business.
After graduation, Mateen will return to the Ilitch School and begin the M.B.A. program, with a focus on international business and business/digital analytics.
“After completion of my M.B.A., I hope to work with several companies that focus on sustainable purchases in the areas of fashion, luxury and automotive. Once I've learned from those amazing experiences and have established my career, I plan to also go into entrepreneurship and own a sustainable fashion line,” Mateen said.
The Mike Ilitch School of Business "25 Under 25 Class of 2020" award recipient is grateful for her experience as an undergraduate student. “Wayne State University has provided me with myriad opportunities throughout my educational journey that have assisted me in defining my future goals and discovering my passions. I have been able to discover my love of sustainability, community building, and Detroit during my tenure here.
"I’ve also had the opportunity to gain great leadership, networking and business etiquette skills through various programs. Each academic, professional and social community that I was a part of helped me feel truly Warrior Strong. I am honored to conclude my undergraduate journey with a commencement celebration and transition to graduate school.”