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Syracuse University Diploma Symbolizes Decades of Sacrifice and Determination
Katherine O’Neil Veley graduated from Syracuse University in 2020 with a degree in creative leadership from University College (UC). Like the thousands of other students in the Class of 2020, Veley waited with excitement and anticipation for the day she would walk the stage with her friends, family and co-workers cheering her on and celebrating her success. Instead, she received a large white envelope in the mail with her diploma enclosed.
Veley, a former Syracuse University employee, spent decades earning that degree. She began college right out of high school, but life got in the way and she didn’t return for a second year. Instead, she joined the workforce. Her work experience eventually led to a job at the University. As part of a campus community, Veley soon understood the importance of a college degree.
Veley started taking classes and after decades of balancing work, family and other obligations, she graduated summa cum laude last spring. She was honored to be named UC’s college marshal and student speaker. Her high achievements qualified her for membership in the Alpha Sigma Lambda Honor Society for nontraditional students. She was also named an alumni scholar, a prestigious award given to University College students who excel academically.
Veley was disappointed when graduation was postponed last year. “I started college 40 years ago and had a long time to dream about what it would feel like to walk the stage,” she says.
“When, in early summer, a hard white envelope arrived, I was shocked to see my diploma inside. But as I held that diploma in my hand, I took a closer look,” she says. “I saw fake blood stains from my forensic class, drops of coffee from countless late nights, eraser dust and highlighter marks, milk stains from all the nights my husband had to eat cereal for dinner and tears of frustration when I mistakenly deleted an assignment that was due in two hours.”
Veley shares her success with the many people along the way who guided and encouraged her. Instructors and fellow students became friends. Co-workers, deans across other schools and colleges and her University College advisors encouraged her to go on.
“But my husband was by far my greatest supporter and the reason I went back to school in the first place,” she says. “He was there with me every step of the way—always cheering me on, reassuring me when I was ready to give up, helping me with homework and being oh, so patient.”
Veley has had time to reflect on what that Syracuse University diploma represents; a degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the country. That one sheet of paper embodies the love and understanding of her husband and son. “There were times I wasn’t able to participate in a family event or a special occasion because an assignment was due in a matter of hours,” she says. “How do I thank them for all that they sacrificed so that I could continue my studies?” She recalls them playing a role in helping her destroy a bridge made of tongue depressors at 11 p.m. one night. She remembers their years of unwavering support, patience and understanding and the immeasurable role it played in her success.
“That piece of paper that arrived in the mail depicts our unique journey as adult students. It represents bravery and tenacity and the awkwardness of the first day of class, when younger students wondered why their professor was sitting among them only to realize we were students ourselves,” she wrote in her commencement speech.
“We are a unique group who come from across the country and around the world,” she says. “We worked, raised kids, served in the military, battled illness, moved our homes, got married and perhaps, divorced, and started new jobs—all while attending classes.”
“Like so many University College students, Veley stayed focused on her studies while juggling multiple responsibilities,” says Rosemary Kelly, assistant dean of student administrative services. “I am consistently inspired by the students with which we work and the same is true with Kate. It was my privilege to have had the opportunity to get to know her.”
Diane Lyden Murphy, dean of Falk College, echoes Kelly’s sentiment. “It was admirable to witness how Kate balanced her studies as an adult learner with family and professional commitments while always making time to volunteer in support of the Syracuse University and local communities,” Murphy says. “With dedication and perseverance, she continued on the path to completing her degree, a road she traveled with determination, perseverance and grace. She continues to motivate others, helping them succeed by her example.”
These days, Veley serves as director of corporate philanthropy at Make-A-Wish Central New York. Her degree in creative leadership gave her the essential skills she needed to compete, thrive, motivate and lead others in today’s society and elevated her proficiencies on a broad scale. Her years working at Syracuse University and with countless nonprofits throughout the region, prepared her well for this new phase of her life. She hopes to have a significant impact on the lives of critically ill children throughout Central New York.
“We are the Class of 2020,” says Veley. “We were the first class to graduate amidst a worldwide pandemic. We endured so much to earn this degree, and COVID-19 can’t take this accomplishment away from us.”
As she looks at her diploma now hanging on the wall in her home, she sees the memories, challenges and joys that are woven into the fabric of the document. “I learned so much studying and working at Syracuse University. I made lifelong friends and have a lasting sense of pride being a member of the Orange community,” Veley says.
Veley said in her Commencement speech that while she and other adult learners often asked themselves why they persevered on their educational journey, she’s confident that none of them regret the sacrifices they made. “Be proud, never forget what you’re capable of and all that you’ve achieved,” she said. “That eight-and-a-half-by-eleven inch piece of paper represents our hard work and the realization that our dreams can come true.”
Note: Subject to continued improvement in public health conditions and relaxation of government restrictions, Syracuse University will host Commencement for the Class of 2020 on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021.