NORMAL — Christmas came early to more than 1,000 hard-working Illinois State University graduates through the gift of a college degree.

Graduates were congratulated by family, friends and ISU staff in ceremonies on Saturday at Redbird Arena in Normal.

Before the morning ceremony, friends Komal Nautiyal of India and Kahla Standwich of Danville exchanged small gifts after growing close during their journey to receive master's degrees in communication.

The orange, white and green of the Indian flag was draped in a sash over her shoulders.

“Wearing my country’s flag as I cross the stage, that will be a big moment. My journey was not easy,” said Nautiyal, who had her first child while studying for her degree.

Standwich said she was thrilled to finally be handed her diploma.

“It will be weird not feeling that pressure to go back to school after the holidays. It will be nice to use that time to relax and focus on other things,” said Standwich.

Graduates Becca Maree of Tuscola and Amy Vitale of Gilberts also formed a friendship while earning a bachelor’s degree in English studies. They plan to attend grad school together for library science.

“Putting on the cap and gown was a surreal moment this morning. It’s exciting,” said Vitale.

Both students said they were excited to celebrate their accomplishment with their families over the holidays.

After a decade of college courses, Brad Marcy of LeRoy said he’ll have to think up something new to fill his time between teaching at LeRoy High School and being a father and husband.

“Over the holidays I plan to spend more time with my girls and family, knowing I don’t have to come back to school in January or worry about buying the next round of textbooks. I’m all done. It’s a fun, new concept I’ll have to get used to,” said Marcy, who received a master’s degree in history.

Communication graduate Tyler Cruz of Gurnee said going home for the holidays will have a different feel this year.

“It will be nice not having to worry about coming back to school after Christmas, but it’s also daunting. It was a long journey and I’m glad I’m at the finish line,” said Cruz.

During the commencement ceremony, students filed into an arena decorated with poinsettias and evergreen boughs where ISU President Larry Dietz congratulated the graduates. 

He reminded the crowd of Redbirds to carry the university’s values into their futures — respect, civic engagement and integrity.

“Your education has prepared you for the next phases of your lives, but it is your commitment to your values that will determine your ultimate success as citizens,” said Dietz. “This country needs you, Illinois needs you and the communities you will chose to call home need you.”

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