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Starbucks, Uber commemorate milestone for ASU grads

A mom and four little kids hug their dad in ASU graduation gear

ASU Uber graduate Kaiser Alcantara gets hugs from his family — Antonella Alcantara and their children Naomi, Samuel, Abraham and Miguel — on Monday afternoon in front of the Memorial Union on the Tempe campus. Photo by Deanna Dent/Arizona State University

May 06, 2024

For a growing number of Arizona State University students, their life trajectories have been vastly improved by the companies that support their college-going journey.

Starbucks and Uber celebrated students at two special graduation events Monday, hearing stories of struggle and triumph against all odds from new graduates as their loved ones gathered to recognize their achievements.

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.

More than 13,000 partners have graduated from ASU since the program’s inception, including more than 1,000 of those partners graduating this week — part of the more than 6,700 ASU Online learners earning their degree this May.

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. 

Advice to spring 2024 grads: 'Spend your time creating new things'

Nearly 20,700 ASU students honored in graduate, undergraduate ceremonies

Since its inception, nearly 900 program participants have graduated from ASU, including 150 this spring. Monday’s event was an opportunity to celebrate their accomplishments, share their stories of success and hear from Uber and EdPlus leadership.

“More than half of the people who start college never graduate,” ASU President Michael Crow said. “We are in the business of finding a way to connect to you individually. We designed a university under a different premise. We built every tool we could conceivably find to be able to help you to learn and to learn the way you learn.

“We have designed our university so that you can work anywhere and you can engage with our faculty, study wherever you want, learn the way you want to learn. We have found a way to make education available to you, where you are in life.”

Starbucks family forum

Starbucks partners and their friends, colleagues and families from across the U.S. poured into the Starbucks Partner Graduation Forum on Monday. Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan and Crow addressed the graduates.

“This is a huge day,” Narasimhan said. “It’s a life-changing day. There are many of you who’ve had journeys that were tough, but they brought you here. Today new paths will be launched, new futures be created, new impact be generated. You are going to make this world a much better place because of what you’ve been through, and for that I encourage you, I thank you and I deeply respect you for where you are.”

Corey Gaskell is a 10-year partner and a double major who as a young adult was in foster care, a warden of the state. As an 18-year-old, he aspired to go to college, but he was unable to finish.

Deciding to seek out work instead, he found not only a job but a community within Starbucks.

Graduating at 29 years old, the business (financial planning) and global management major is looking forward to everything Starbucks has to offer as well as the world.

“The culmination of everything I’ve been working for many, many years has finally come to a head,” Gaskell said. “I have plans to travel this year. With my degree, I really hope I’m able to go out into the world and get a job in another country and live abroad.”

The program attracts learners from different walks of life. Patricio Rodriguez, a first-generation Mexican American graduate from Chula Vista, California, reflected on his parents’ journey and the culmination of this day.

“They dropped out of college to start a family together,” said Rodriguez, who is graduating with his business (corporate accounting) degree. “They realized they had to find a better opportunity for their children.”

For Rodriguez, it’s fulfilling that through the achievements of his dreams, he also spreads that joy to the achievement of his parents and their life purpose. 

“I’m not only proud of myself, but also my family who supported me through it,” Rodriguez said. “I’m proud of every single one of you here and taking the time and opportunity to say I will go back to school, I will start school and I will finish thanks to the support we have.”

As part of the Army National Guard, Tim Waters took the time to thank and acknowledge Starbucks not only for providing a pathway to complete his degree but also for supporting his family through two deployments to Iraq. 

“I was with Starbucks for only six months when I got deployed the first time for 18 months,” Waters said. “During that time the company held my position and kept my family together.”

When he retired in 2018, he decided to enroll in SCAP,  but he won’t be the first Sun Devil in his family. He will finally join his family as an ASU grad. His wife and eldest son have attended ASU, and he currently has another son attending ASU. 

“It means everything to officially be a Sun Devil,” Waters said.

Two women in ASU graduation caps and gowns take a selfie with the CEO of Starbucks
Graduates of the Starbucks College Achievement Plan share their stories (and some selfie opportunities) with Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan at the Starbucks Partner Graduation Forum on Monday in Tempe. Photo by Ivy Studios Photography

Uber graduation luncheon

In a room decorated with bright gold “2024” balloons backed by curtains of shimmering black confetti, Liza Winship addressed the crowd. The director of operations for Uber spoke of the hard work each graduate put in -— either behind the wheel or in the classroom — to reach the momentous milestone of earning a degree.

Graduates from fall 2023 and spring and summer 2024 were invited to participate in the luncheon. More than a few sat with friends and family members as Winship acknowledged their achievement.

“I want you all to take a moment to think of all the work that you put in to get to today,” Winship said. “You put in a ton of work, and you deserve what you’ve just accomplished and that will never be taken away from you.”

Winship applauded the grit, perseverance and ambition of the new grads as they pave their own path into new careers and impact their lives and the lives of their families. 

She was joined in a roundtable discussion by new graduates Zoeanne Smith, who is graduating with a Bachelor of Science in counseling and applied psychological science, and Chad Rutan, who is graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in liberal studies with a minor in business. Also part of the discussion was Randy Clarke, who graduated in 2020 with dual bachelor's degrees in communication and political science

Clarke is credited with presenting the idea of an Uber scholarship program in a letter to Dara Khosrowshahi, chief executive officer of Uber. Clarke was driving for Uber to help pay for his schooling but nevertheless dropped out due to financial hardship. When Uber launched its partnership with ASU, Clarke was one of the first drivers to graduate through the program. 

Fatmata M. Musa knows the journey well. She came to the U.S. from Sierra Leone 15 years ago. Her husband, Daniel Kekura Musa, followed eight years later. 

Fatmata worked full time while driving for Uber and raising three children. When she qualified for the tuition scholarship, she encouraged Daniel to go school. 

“My dream was to become an IT specialist graduating in information technology,” Daniel said. “Honestly, it has been a challenging moment for me because I was working and going to school, taking care of the kids, taking care of my wife. But I was able to succeed, and I finally got my bachelor’s degree. So it has been challenging, but also rewarding.”

Daniel became visibly emotional as he recalled how education wasn’t a possibility for his own parents. His father had completed some high school, but his mother had never stepped foot in a classroom, had never even learned her letters or numbers. 

His degree in information technology makes him the first in his family to graduate from college, and his family couldn’t be more proud. 

“I am super grateful to God,” Fatmata said. “And also proud of our children because they have been part of it. He has skipped some vacations, and I have spent a lot of time doing Uber just to get the points so that my husband’s dream would come to reality. I’m really proud of him.”

Daniel and Fatmata’s son, Daniel Jr., is about to turn 18 and embark on his own college journey. He will be following in his father’s footsteps to study computer science. The couple also have two daughters, 12-year-old Esther and 6-year-old Daniela. Daniel may be the first college graduate in his family, but he won’t be the last. 

Christopher Bennett came from North Carolina to celebrate earning his degree in liberal studies, a degree that was 12 years in the making. 

Bennett attended college in his early 20s but struggled to settle on a single major and eventually dropped out. He relied on working as a server until he was forced out of that job by the pandemic. When he returned to his hometown to regroup, he started driving for Uber to earn money. 

That’s when Bennett learned about the Uber tuition benefit and ASU Online. 

When he began investigating how to transfer his college credits over to ASU, he was blown away by the ease of the process.

“At that point I had six years of undergrad but had changed my degree four times,” he said. “I had 98 credit hours transfer from two different institutions. I applied as a transfer student, I gave the transfer portal the information from my former institutions and I checked the box saying Arizona State was approved to have access to my academic records. It was so easy.”

When he received his ASU acceptance, all of his transfer credits were there in his account. 

Thinking about his journey, Bennett is almost in disbelief that he finally achieved his goal of earning a degree. Uber gave him the opportunity to complete his education, and that sparked a reconnection with his family. 

“My experience literally would not have worked out without my mom, without Arizona State and without Uber all stepping in at the same time,” he said. 

His advice for other students who may be uncertain about embarking on their own college journey: “Look at what’s coming to you and start stepping on those steppingstones. The world is trying to make you successful.”

Phil Regier, CEO and university dean for educational initiatives of EdPlus, the unit that houses ASU Online, said, “We think everybody who is capable of receiving a university degree deserves a chance at earning a university degree.

“There are a few companies who have come along with us on this quest to educate more and more people in this country. Uber’s commitment to people working in the gig economy and their belief that gig workers should be able to get substantial and important benefits that will change their life forever is to be applauded. There are too few companies stepping up and making that kind of statement.”

Winship echoed the sentiment as she addressed the crowd. 

“All of you drivers and couriers do so much for others,” she said. “Whether it’s bringing people home to their families or helping put meals on people’s tables, you are the backbone of Uber and we are so excited to see your dreams realized. As college tuition across the country has continued to rise, we believe that shouldn’t be a blocker for people to get their degree.

"I’m so honored to stand here and celebrate all of your achievements, and I’m excited to continue following you as you continue to pursue your careers.”

Margot LaNoue contributed to this article.

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