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Starbucks, Uber celebrate ASU Online graduates

Starbucks grad walking between rows of people shaking pompoms
May 09, 2023

Ordering a cup of coffee or hailing a ride on an app are ordinary parts of our everyday lives, but for a growing number of Arizona State University students, the companies behind those activities are changing their life trajectories.

Starbucks and Uber celebrated those students at two special graduation events Monday, hearing stories of triumph and wiping happy tears as the new graduates and their loved ones gathered.

Established in 2014, the Starbucks College Achievement Plan provides full tuition coverage for its benefits-eligible employees, or partners, to earn their bachelor’s degree through ASU Online, and this May, the program reached a significant milestone. More than 10,000 partners have graduated from ASU since the program’s inception, with nearly 1,000 of those partners graduating this week.

The Uber and ASU Education Program, launched in 2018, creates an opportunity for qualifying drivers and couriers with Uber Pro status to be eligible to receive 100% tuition coverage at ASU. The program is approaching nearly 700 graduates, including more than 160 this spring. Monday’s event marks the first time a graduation celebration was held in their honor, an opportunity to hear from Uber and EdPlus leadership and share their stories of success.

“In Starbucks and Uber, ASU found organizations that shared our fervent belief in the power of education and our passion for nurturing individual achievement,” said ASU President Michael Crow. “ASU understands that degree completion is integral to positive social mobility, which is why we are wholly committed to using every asset we have to forging new paths to graduation for people everywhere and at every life stage.”

Overall, about 6,000 students are graduating through ASU Online this spring.

Starbucks family forum

The Starbucks event was kicked off with, appropriately enough, a coffee tasting. Eight-year partner Raymond Sadsad, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in community health, and 10-year partner Tonya Palacios, graduating with a degree in organizational leadership – project management, led the tradition.

Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan addressed the room full of graduates, their families and Starbucks partners who came in support of their colleagues.

“It is such a remarkable milestone for all of you,” Narasimhan said. “I have spoken to people that range — who have done this in four years to people who have done this in 30 years. It just goes to show you, when you set your mind to it, you are going to get to a great place, and we at Starbucks are so proud of you.”

One student on the fast track was Skylar Smith, an 18-year-old English major from California who graduated from high school a year and a half early, with honors, during the pandemic. Her father, Duane Smith, spoke at the event.

“I am blessed to have a daughter who has done it (college) in two years,” Smith said. “She is my greatest example of success.”

Others shared how the Starbucks program has been life-changing.

Ten years ago, Rebekah Schearer from Troutdale, Oregon, went to college right after high school. She struggled in school while her friends graduated with honors, and she eventually dropped out, thinking college was just not for her. Years later she had her daughter and still thought college wasn’t a possibility. Then she discovered the Starbucks College Achievement Plan.

“Now I know that being a mom is my superpower,” she said. “I want to recognize and commend all the women, especially the moms who have the late nights with their kids, who were writing papers at gymnastics practice or who sometimes had to pick between the late assignments or spending time with their kids. Being a mom is a superpower. Women are incredible and achieve anything we put our minds to. I’m so incredibly proud of myself.”

Lawrence Allen, a shift supervisor and a liberal studies major from Tallahassee, Florida, shared that ASU’s graduation day marked his 17 years with Starbucks.

“This is very, very special because I’m looking at everybody and this is beautiful,” Allen said. “It’s not just one race, it’s not just one group, it’s just people. It’s beautiful.” 

Inaugural Uber graduation celebration

Earlier Monday afternoon, in a room decorated with gold and black balloons, Carrol Chang addressed the crowd. The global head of driver and courier operations for Uber spoke of Randy, a driver living in Arizona who couldn’t pursue his degree due to financial hardship.

It was because of Randy that the Uber program launched in 2018.

“The world is truly limitless,” Chang said. “With this degree and with the range of people we have in this room, just look around at the diversity in ages, in backgrounds, in fields of study. The world really is your oyster, and it’s up to you what you’re going to do with it. You will do great things.”

Devon Bernard from Atlanta plans to do just that.

“I value education, and I think it unlocks so many other things,” he said.

The path through college wasn’t easy: His mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, but his professors provided the flexibility to continue his studies. This spring Bernard graduates magna cum laude with his Bachelor of Science in sustainability

Lindsay Townsend knows about the obstacles life can put in your way. Her positive disposition has helped her persevere, and she was thankful to Uber for the opportunity.

“Driving for Uber has been great for me,” Townsend said. “When I started I was in an abusive relationship. It was a great escape for me. I am on the autism spectrum. Over the years it’s been great for me to open up and talk with people in my car.”

Townsend had tried college various times in Colorado but had been unsuccessful until she found ASU. 

“I love learning, and I love people,” she said. “I decided to go back to ASU for food and nutrition entrepreneurship. It’s great to be graduating. You can do it if I can do it.”

Not all journeys through college are the same, and ASU is there to help meet students where they are and help them surmount those challenges, said Phil Regier, CEO and university dean for educational initiatives of EdPlus, the unit that houses ASU Online.

“Life intervenes,” Regier said. “Someone got ill in their family. They had a child. They got married. Maybe they didn’t have their life figured out when they were 18, so they dropped all their courses at community college and did something else.

“What we are trying to do and what we want to do is provide access to individuals like that and provide them the chance to get a degree that is equivalent in learning outcomes in every way to what the students on campus are able to get as well.” 

Top photo: A Starbucks-ASU graduate is celebrated at the May 8 forum on the ASU Tempe campus prior to Undergraduate Commencement. Photos by Ivy Studios Photography

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