Commencement Stories: St. Charles Man’s Degree Is 40 Years in the Making
As the old adage goes, “Do as I say, not as I do.”
For St. Charles resident Marty Lombardo, the thought of applying that double-standard to his daughter kicked off a journey that will culminate with the May 14 Northern Illinois University commencement ceremonies.
Lombardo, 58, attended NIU in the late 1970s, studying art education. But he left NIU in 1980 to enter the workforce. As he advanced his career, the fact he hadn’t finished his degree haunted him.
“Everyone just assumed I had a degree,” he said.
During a quintessential parenting moment when he was encouraging his daughter not to quit an activity, the specter entered the room.
“I told her Lombardos don’t quit –and then I realized that I was a quitter.”
After that exchange, he decided to do something about it. He contacted Judy Santacaterina about the Bachelor of General Studies (BGS) in Liberal Arts and Sciences and enrolled in the summer of 2011.
“I did it for me,” he said. “But I wanted to be a good role model for my daughter.
“The fact that I could build off of the classes I took when I was an art major and didn’t have to start over really appealed to me,” he said. “I also liked the diversity of classes the program offered.”
Lombardo enrolled a class or two at a time, juggling work commitments and a busy family life. He traveled as part of his job, and often took his books with him.
“I would look at the course syllabus and tried to schedule my travel to avoid conflicts with tests and project deadlines,” he said. “If I couldn’t avoid a conflict, I talked with the professor and was able to make other arrangements.”
His commitment and time management skills have enabled the Samtec regional sales manager to maintain straight A’s since 2011.
“It was a challenge,” Lombardo said. “But I didn’t want to quit twice and let my mother down again.”
He soldiered on, thanks to the support he received from Santacaterina and his daughter, who was attending college in Iowa.
“We encouraged each other,” Lombardo said. “She emails her papers to me to proofread.”
“Economics is part of business and everyday life,” he said. “Communications skills are a must for my field, in addition to ethics and cultural diversity.”
Preparing students for career success, an NIU hallmark found in the traditional on-campus undergraduate experience, was also a component in Lombardo’s experience.
As part of an internship course, he organized a three-day sales workshop and training in Naperville. He is organizing a similar sales workshop and training for later this year, just not for course credit.
Along the way, Santacaterina and her husband, communication instructor Matt Swan, enlisted Marty to help students enrolled in a course on performance in speech communication (COMS 309), by conducting 10-minute mock job interviews.
“It’s nice for our traditional undergraduates to sit across the table from a professional and learn from them,” Santacaterina said. “Whenever I can get an excellent BGS student to be a part of this activity, it gives my students a good role model and shows them that it’s never too late to earn your degree.”
Lombardo provides students with constructive feedback on soft skills, such as eye contact and maintaining the conversation.
“I approach it from what I’m looking for as an employer,” Lombardo said. “I give them my card at the end so they have a resource and can build a network.”
He plans on continuing his participation in the mock interviews as an alumnus.
As he prepares to participate in commencement, Lombardo is excited and grateful for the second chance to earn his degree. While accepting the degree is a life-changing moment, it also fulfills a promise Santacaterina made to Lombardo when he embarked on the journey in 2011.
“I promised Marty that he would graduate before the Cubs made it to the World Series,” Santacaterina said. “As a Sox fan, I hate to admit it, but it’s a good thing he’s graduating in 2016 because I have a feeling this is the Cub’s year.”
Aside from the promises fulfilled, Lombardo has some sage advice for current students struggling and considering dropping out of school.
“Finishing a degree will not only help you get a job, but it gives you the satisfaction of a great accomplishment. Hard work and luck got me where I’m at, but I took the hard road. Patience is a virtue, but please do not take 40 years like I did.”
- Paula Meyer, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. This article and photos are republished courtesy of NIU Newsroom.