When you’re 74 years old and have worked hard to finish a degree, it’s nice to finally walk across the stage at graduation and enjoy the pomp and ceremony, even if it was delayed for a while.
John Riordan, who graduated in May 2021, plans to celebrate Sunday when he attends the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s special in-person recognition event for pandemic graduates.
“This means a lot to me personally,” Riordan wrote in his RSVP to the event. “I’m very happy you are doing this.”
Riordan had already earned a couple of degrees – a bachelor’s degree from Loyola and an MBA from the University of Chicago. He’s also an enrolled IRS agent and a CPA. But he’s always been interested in tax law as well as the computational side of taxes. UWM’s master’s program in management with a concentration in taxation really interested him. He describes finishing his latest degree as a “bucket list” item.
“The Master of Science in taxation really embodied all the things I wanted to learn about the business side of the law. That’s what made me pursue it,” Riordan said. “I’ve always wanted to do this. It was a lifetime dream.”
After working for two major pharmaceutical companies and serving on pension boards in several countries around the world, Riordan came to UWM in 2012. His two daughters were grown and out of the house, so he and his wife decided it was time. He drove from northern Illinois three or four nights a week to attend class and persevered through medical issues that interrupted his studies at times.
Once he completed a certificate program in state and local taxation law at UWM, he pursued the master’s degree in taxation. (That program is no longer offered at UWM.)
“I didn’t mind the drive except when it was snowing, I-94 was under construction and there were a lot of trucks. I’d just get out of the way and hope for the best.”
Most of the students and some of his professors were younger than him, but Riordan didn’t blink at that.
“I really liked the instructors,” Riordan said. “You wouldn’t just read the tax law; you’d have to come to class and apply it. That’s a real education.”
When the pandemic hit as he was nearing the finish, he was disappointed but not fazed.
“I always believed that it’s not how many times you get knocked down, it’s how many times you get up that counts.”
He appreciated the efforts faculty made when the pandemic hit, switching to virtual classes. “I would absolutely endorse UWM as an excellent school,” Riordan said.
Jacob Kachellek is another graduate of the virtual years who plans to celebrate on Sunday by joining the event via livestream. Kachellek, who earned his bachelor’s degree in information science and technology in December 2020, now lives and works in Charleston, South Carolina.
Having served in the Air National Guard, he was used to interruptions to his plans.
Kachellek, who is originally from West Bend, started at UWM in 2017, but was deployed overseas in the spring of 2018. He returned to UWM in fall of 2019. The pandemic arrived the following spring.
“When the pandemic struck, it was a crazy time for everyone,” he said.
“Switching gears to strictly online was challenging, but UWM and its staff made excellent efforts to accommodate students,” Kachellek said. “While the pandemic was far from ideal, it molded us into stronger students, graduates and colleagues.”
The flexibility of online coursework helped him to balance full-time work, military responsibilities and classwork, he added. The program also helped him improve the technical skills needed in his full-time job that involves troubleshooting and maintaining meteorological and air traffic control systems.
Since finishing his degree, Kachellek has taken his combined interest in information systems and atmospheric sciences into a career that has taken him to some of the more remote areas of the world. He spent five months in Antarctica and is now continuing that work with a South Carolina company, Vertex Aerospace, which supports the United States Antarctic Program.
“The work in the Antarctic has been fascinating,” Kachellek said. “It’s a unique place. The landscape is beautiful and gorgeous.”
He credits his degree from UWM – even with pandemic and deployment interruptions – with helping him achieve his goals. “Without this, I truly believe I would not have the opportunity I consider myself fortunate to have.”