Under his black cap and gown, Lt. Cmdr. Marc Smith humbly wore his U.S. Coast Guard uniform at Union Graduate College’s commencement ceremony.
Smith, 36, was one of more than 200 graduates who received master’s degrees in management, health care management, engineering, education and bioethics Saturday at Proctors.
This year’s commencement speaker, Arthur Caplan, head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center, spoke to students about bioethics and how what they learned at Union will translate into real-world situations.
The ceremony began with a procession of bagpipers, followed by the graduates, then remarks from several faculty members, including the college’s president, Laura Schweitzer.
“We are deeply proud that you chose Union Graduate College,” she said. “Please know you will always be a part of the Union Graduate family.”
Smith, a Schenectady native who graduated from Mohonasen High School in Rotterdam, is the first member of the armed forces to give the student commencement speech.
When he was young, Smith said his family would vacation in Cape May, N.J., where the Coast Guard’s boot camp is located. His love for the water drew him to the Coast Guard.
“I would see the ships all the time,” he said. “And I hadn’t really done any research, but I decided that when people were asking you in high school, ‘What do you want to do?’ I would say, ‘Well, I want to go to the Coast Guard Academy.’ ”
When the time came to apply to college, Smith applied to the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. When he was selected as an alternate, he enlisted instead, completing boot camp at age 17 and getting an assignment to Governor’s Island in New York City as a buoy maintenance technician. When he was in New York, a junior officer who had just graduated from the Coast Guard Academy encouraged Smith to reapply, he recalled.
“I actually called home and said ‘Send in the application again,’ ” he said, “so I sent in the same exact application, the same essay, the same everything.”
Before attending the academy, though, he was asked to attend the Naval Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., where he would be able to improve his test scores, learn study techniques and get a taste of academy life. Smith spent 10 months at the prep school before graduating and was then appointed to the academy. He majored in naval architecture and marine engineering and graduated in 2000.
After graduation, Smith was assigned to the Coast Guard cutter Campbell in New Bedford, Mass., as an engineering officer in training. He later served as senior port engineer for the Naval Engineering Support Unit in Portsmouth, Va., as engineering support division chief for Sector Southeastern New England in Woods Hole, Mass., and finally as engineering officer on the cutter Tampa back in Portsmouth.
While he was aboard the Tampa off the coast of Honduras, his wife, Sarah, an Army and Coast Guard veteran herself, gave birth to their son, Caden. Smith described the experience as surreal.
“It was empty,” said Smith, who also has an 11-year-old daughter, Alexia. “It becomes very, very real at that point.”
After Caden was born, Smith began looking into graduate school, and his family eventually relocated to Glenville so he could attend Union.
Smith said he was attracted to Union because it offered a dual major and a trimester program. That combination was enough to bring him back to where he was born and raised.
Smith decided to focus more on the business side of engineering, so the engineering and management major was a perfect fit for him, he explained. Smith also graduated with a certificate in leadership and management.
Smith was able to go to school at night and spend the day with his children, getting his daughter on and off the school bus every day.
“It worked out. I was going to class at night. I had all day to spend with my son,” he said. “I was playing Mr. Mom.”
At the graduation ceremony, Schweitzer acknowledged many of the graduates were also raising families while going to school and had to make many sacrifices to complete their degrees.
Smith expressed concern at first about beginning his master’s program. He had not been in a classroom since he finished his undergraduate degree 11 years earlier and was raising a family. He was also nervous his classes would be solely concerned with academia, while he wanted more real-world training. At Union, he said he received both.
“I wasn’t expecting the school to be so involved in the real world,” he said. “I was expecting to be lost in academia.”
Smith was far from lost, graduating with a 3.89 grade-point average, and the faculty and staff at the college adored him.
“I know we have benefitted from your presence here,” Schweitzer said to Smith.
Smith spoke highly of the faculty and staff, as well.
“It was so impressive that everybody really worried about the practical application of now,” he said. “This is how you are going to apply this.”
In his speech, Smith focused on the partnerships he witnessed at the college and the lessons he learned both in and out of the classroom.
“This formal program here has been exactly what I was looking for,” he said, “but the surprising thing, if you will, was that I found that the informal culture here at Union Graduate taught me just that much more. At every turn, across disciplines and throughout the organization, I saw collaboration in action.”
Despite his experience, excellence in academics and dedication to the college, Smith said he was surprised to be selected as the student commencement speaker.
“I was pretty surprised. I’m still surprised,” he said. “There are so many impressive people I have gone to class with.”
Smith and his family will be relocating to California, where he will begin his next assignment as engineering and projects branch chief for 80 Coast Guard cutters. Smith hopes to one day move up the ranks to commander. He believes the degree he received at Union and the knowledge he acquired will help.
Smith concluded his speech by thanking his family, friends and the faculty, as well as his fellow classmates.
“Good luck in all of your future endeavors,” he said. “I wish you all fair winds and following seas.”
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