By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – Mark Barrientos had quite the cheering section during Friday’s spring commencement ceremony at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
Nearly a dozen people came to watch him receive his bachelor’s degree. That’s how important this accomplishment is for Barrientos and his family.
“It’s the biggest moment of my life,” he said while posing for photos outside the Health and Sports Center. “My parents came to this country for this very reason. My whole life has been working up to this moment.”
Barrientos’ parents, who emigrated from Guatemala, were his biggest motivation throughout college. When times were tough, he thought about where they came from and the sacrifices they made to give him a better future.
The Lexington native also found inspiration at UNK, where he was involved in the Sigma Lambda Beta fraternity, Student Government, Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion, Men’s Project and Thompson Scholars Learning Community, which provides academic and social support for students and promotes campus engagement. The program serves students who receive the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation Scholarship awarded to Nebraska high school graduates with financial needs.
“They really set you up for success,” Barrientos said of the learning community and diversity office. “If it wasn’t for that support system, I wouldn’t have anyone to turn to. The doors were always open and you could always talk to them.”
Although Barrientos will miss his time at UNK, particularly all the opportunities to participate in organizations and projects that impact both campus and the community, he’s excited about the next step in life.
Barrientos is moving to Omaha, where he plans to use his degree in business administration with a finance emphasis to start a stock trading company with his brother.
“I feel like what I learned at UNK is really going to set me up to run a successful business,” he said.
UNK conferred undergraduate degrees for about 500 students on Friday, and a separate graduate-degree hooding ceremony is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Health and Sports Center. Nearly 200 degrees will be awarded during that event.
Chancellor Doug Kristensen applauded the campus effort that allowed these events to happen.
“To say this year is memorable is probably a huge understatement,” he said during Friday’s ceremony. “Our staff, students and faculty have all sacrificed to keep our campus safe and open so we could have commencements like today.”
Clarissa Fitzgerald of Kearney was among the first students to arrive on Friday morning, a reflection of her eagerness to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in general studies.
“There’s no one word to describe it,” she said of the moment. “It’s all the triumphs and all the hardships and all the friends I’ve made. It’s just a success. It’s a stamp at the end of a really fun and really hard five years.”
Fitzgerald majored in general studies, but she focused on criminal justice, political science and philosophy and conducted undergraduate research through the biology department. She was also a member of the Thompson Scholars Learning Community.
Her favorite part of attending UNK was interacting with faculty members.
“There are so many great professors,” she said. “They really get into what they’re teaching and their enthusiasm gets me really excited about their topic. They’re so much fun to work with.”
Fitzgerald wants to be a special investigations officer in the U.S. Air Force, and she hopes to attend Officer Training School next year.
“I started taking criminal justice classes here at UNK and fell in love with investigations,” said Fitzgerald, who is “beyond excited” about her future.
“I cannot wait to go serve,” she said.