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Ivy Tech students dodge COVID curveballs to make it to graduation at US Steel Yard

Ivy Tech students dodge COVID curveballs to make it to graduation at US Steel Yard

GARY — Amid the ceremonial traditions of symphonic music and robes, Ivy Tech students dodged curveballs thrown their way and made it to their graduation day, which had a nontraditional backdrop.

Ivy Tech Community College Lake County’s class of 2021 circled around the bases of Gary’s U.S. Steel Yard baseball field Saturday for their commencement ceremony. Family and friends flooded the stadium seats for the first-ever opportunity to attend an Ivy Tech graduation at the ballpark.

Donne Kiesling, Ivy Tech assistant director for marketing and communications, said officials from the U.S. Steel Yard reached out to the college, offering to host an outdoor socially-distanced ceremony. There were no ceremonies held in 2020 due to the pandemic, and 2021 commencement plans were up in the air for some time.

“This means everything to us, it’s our main event of the year and last year we were heartbroken that we could not hold a ceremony,” Kiesling said. “The graduates are so excited, I think everything’s been pent up from the last year and now they can say they preserved through it. We have a lot of nontraditional students who have kids who are going through virtual learning, so they were dealing with a lot of challenges.”

There were about 1,000 people in Ivy Tech’s graduation class with about 275 people participating in the ceremony. Kiesling said that normally graduations are held inside in places like gymnasiums, but this year marked the first time one has been held in a sports stadium for Ivy Tech.

“This year is more festive,” Kiesling said. “And who doesn’t love a day at the ballpark?”

Chancellor R. Louie Gonzalez thanked the U.S. Steel Yard for hosting, marking a unique ceremony.

“I’ve been doing this for 33 years and I think I took graduations for granted before,” he said. “When we didn’t have one last year it was heartbreaking. It's great to be able to hold this ceremony for the students and those around them who were their support system.”

Jabari Brewster, 27, of Valparaiso, graduated with a degree in industrial technology. His wife, Latoya Brewster, brought their four young children to watch Brewster receive his diploma.

“I'm trying to be an electrical engineer,” Jabari Brewster said. “It wasn’t easy but I wanted it and made it happen. I’m happy, I feel good about it.”

Breonna Claesell, 27, of Hammond, received her associate's degree in accounting and she aims to one day open her own tax services company. Her three children came to cheer her on. While she was earning her degree through the pandemic she also had to help her children with virtual learning.

“It was a challenge,” Claesell said. “For me, this means a family business and growing for the future.”

Jeremiah Luvert, 20, of Chicago, earned his associate's degree in applied science and wants to be a tech entrepreneur.

“It’s a blessing,” he said. “It took a lot of time and I had to adapt, but overall it was still a good experience.”

Ivy Tech also honored Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce with an honorary degree for the manufacturing committee’s work in creating the Precision Machining Academy, which offers training for high-demand jobs in the machine tool industry.

“We were very surprised to hear that Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce would receive an award for the manufacturing committee, headed by Mark Van Fleet and Peter Nau Jr.,” said Dave Ryan, executive director for the Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce. “It was a great collaboration between Ivy Tech, the School City of Hammond and the Hammond Area Career Center.”

Ivy Tech President Sue Ellspermann delivered a message of resilience, expressing her pride in the graduates’ determination despite adversity. She began addressing them by saying, “A wise proverb goes, ‘Smooth seas do not make skilled sailors.’

“The great generation did not become great because of the year they were born but because of the lives they endured, which made them the most resilient generation ever,” Ellspermann said. “Selfless, hardworking, humble, industrious; graduates, you have the opportunity to be America’s next great generation.”


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Night Crime/Breaking News Reporter

Anna Ortiz is the breaking news/crime reporter for The Times, covering crime, politics, courts and investigative news. She is a graduate of Ball State University with a major in journalism and minor in anthropology. 219-933-4194,

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