DECATUR — About 350 students are expected to graduate from Millikin University during a spring commencement ceremony Sunday afternoon in the Decatur Civic Center.

But for Ryan Heeren and about 50 other students receiving their bachelor’s degrees from Millikin’s Professional Adult Comprehensive Education program Saturday at Kirkland Fine Arts Center, the accomplishment perhaps means even more. “It’s a great feeling to achieve a major life goal,” he said.

The Decatur man will be recognized as the outstanding PACE graduate for designing and implementing a performance management system at the Rodeway Inn in St. Louis, managed by Millikin alumnus Ruchir Bhakta. Heeren was nominated for the honor by Susan Kruml, associate professor of management.

“For somebody who was juggling job and family, he was an incredible leader in the classroom,” Kruml said. “I have never had another student who was a better partner in his education.”

Heeren, 27, originally enrolled at Millikin University to study accounting after graduating from Calvary Baptist Academy in Normal in 2004 but dropped out about halfway through.

A salesman with U.S. Cellular who has since married and started a family, Heeren said he was ready for college by the time he enrolled in the PACE program in 2011.

“I was dating my wife, Mercedes,” he said. “Having somebody on my side was a major factor in giving me the confidence to move forward in my education.”

He said the birth of his daughter, Eliana, three and a half years ago also sharpened his focus.

Earning a bachelor of science in management, Heeren said he’s interviewing for jobs that will let him apply what he’s learned at U.S. Cellular and at Millikin. “I want to be a leader and a decision-maker,” he said.

The keynote speaker Saturday will be U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville. Masters of Business Administration graduates will also receive degrees, and student speakers will be PACE graduate Tammy Maxwell of Decatur and MBA recipient Julienne Shields of Lovington.

Tickets are required for admission to Millikin’s commencement ceremonies, which are 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Heeren said he and his family plan to celebrate with dinner out before Saturday’s ceremony, and then he’s going backpacking with his younger brother Reed next week in the Great Smoky Mountains. His parents are Rick and Rae Ann Heeren of Heyworth.

“I’m looking forward to walking out with the graduating class and my family seeing me being successful at moving forward,” Heeren said. “They’ve all been so supportive.”

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