TEMPE, ARIZ. – Sarah Ehmann has been waiting for this day since 1998.
Monday evening, nearly two decades after she originally embarked on a college career, the Starbucks store manager from Sarasota, Fla., sat on the field of Arizona State University’s Sun Devil Stadium and was recognized as one of the more than 260 graduates who earned a degree through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan.
About 100 feet in front of her, Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz gave his first commencement address.
“I’m so proud of you who have benefitted from the ASU/Starbucks partnership,” he said from the stage. “I’m incredibly proud to be your partner.”
Three years ago, Schultz announced the college achievement plan, which provides eligible partners based in the U.S. who work 20 hours a week or more the opportunity to get an online degree through ASU, debt-free. More than 7,000 are currently participating in the program.
Schultz opened his speech remembering a moment from when Starbucks opened its first store in South Africa. Many of the newly hired partners there had never had a job before and had experienced deep poverty. He spent hours with them hearing their stories and kept hearing a word. It was “Ubuntu.” When he asked what it meant, he was told, “Howard, it means, ‘I am because of you'." “Everything I’m going to share with you is through the lens of Ubuntu," Schultz said.
Schultz grew up in a housing project in Brooklyn, N.Y. Both his parents were high school dropouts and they struggled to pay the $96 a month rent, he said.
He told the audience of 30,000 that in 1960, his father was working as a truck driver, delivering and picking up diapers, when he fell on a sheet of ice, breaking his ankle. Back then, there was no workman’s compensation and his family didn’t have insurance coverage. His dad was laid off and, “I saw the fracturing of the American dream,” he said. “Those scars and that shame are with me today.”
Despite all of that, his mother instilled a belief in him that a good education and hard work will open doors for a better life, he said. “Your station in life does not define you and the promise of America is for all of us.”
Schultz said he’s a living example of that. “Only in America can a poor kid from public housing have the privilege and honor to be the commencement speaker at the largest and most innovative university in the country.”
He said he’s spent his career building the kind of company that his father never got the chance to work for – one that respects the dignity of work and the dignity of all men and women. Starbucks began offering health coverage to partners working 20 hours a week or more over 30 years ago, made a commitment to hiring veterans, started the college achievement plan and more.
Success in life – and in business – is best when it’s shared, he said. And not every business decision is an economic one.
“We have built one of the most respected and recognized brands in the world – with the view that today the rules of engagement for business and business leaders have changed. That we must do more for our people and the communities we serve.”
‘A dream come true’
A few hours earlier, at the packed Starbucks Partner Forum, Aristotle Jefferson had presented Schultz with a gift – a graduation stole signed by many of those who, like Jefferson, are receiving their diplomas this week.
“As a first-generation college student it’s been a dream come true,” said Jefferson, a San Jose, Calif., barista graduating with a degree in public policy and service. “The program has allowed me to help break the cycle of poverty.”
The forum was an emotional testament to the power of the unique partnership between ASU and Starbucks that provides eligible partners based in the U.S. who work 20 hours a week or more the opportunity to get an online degree through ASU debt free.
“Today is to celebrate you,” Schultz told the graduates.
Graduation events kicked off Sunday night with a reception for Starbucks partners and their families. They continued Monday with the forum, campus tours, a cap decorating session and more.
‘No matter what obstacles, you can still succeed’
Earlier in the day, 10-year-old Aeris Baggett was focused on each letter as she carefully placed it on the sign she was making. Slowly, the message unfolded: “Mommy Congratulations!”
Sitting beside her was her mom, Brandy McIntosh, one of the more than 260 people graduating today from Arizona State University through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan. Also with her were her 4-year-old sister and her grandmother.
Getting her psychology degree “means the world to me,” said McInstosh, 31. “It’s a destiny moment. I can show my kids that no matter what obstacles are put up, you can still succeed.”
For McIntosh, it’s the completion of a degree she began when she was 18. She was attending the University of Arizona on a scholarship when she ran into challenges at home and quit school to work. After Aeris was born she didn’t have time to go to back to college and also worried about accumulating debt to pay for college. When McIntosh, a Starbucks barista, heard about the College Achievement Plan she applied immediately. She is completing her degree with a 4.0.
“It was a long time coming, but it will make such a difference,” she told Aeris, who had moved on to adding butterflies and tiny pompoms to her sign.
‘She’s worked so hard’
A few tables away from McIntosh at the cap-decorating event sat Rebecca England, a barista from Richmond, Va. She got emotional as she tried to explain what the day means to her. Not too many years ago, she didn’t think it would be possible for her to get a bachelor’s degree. She had earned a two-year degree, but couldn’t afford to keep going to school.
When she got her associate’s degree, she told her mom she didn’t want to walk in graduation until she was able to finish her bachelor’s. Years later, that day arrived.
As she decorated the Starbucks logo that she’ll apply to her cap, she recalled the phone call in which she learned she’d been accepted into the college program. “I was at church and I got the call and I just started crying,” she said. “People were asking if I was OK.”
Her mom, Shearin England, saved up so the two could fly to Tempe and attend commencement. “She’s worked so hard and she deserves all good things,” she said. “She’s struggled to get to this place.”
Rebecca England, who describes herself, as “a huge book nerd,” is getting a degree in library sciences. There were days along the way when she was exhausted from working full-time and going to school, but quitting was never an option.
That kind of opportunity is exactly what drives the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, said Schultz.
“Most of the partners I’ve met either didn’t go to college because they couldn’t afford it or had to leave school because of indebtedness that did not allow them to move forward. The question was: How do we solve it?”
‘Dream big – and then dream bigger’
Monday night, by the time the commencement ceremony’s closing fireworks were finished, Ehmann had seen her longtime dream fulfilled.
“It’s incredible,” she said of completing the degree she’d begun so long ago. And now she’s planning to go even further and pursue her master’s degree in the fall.
During Schultz’s speech, he reminded the graduates of the future and the opportunities that stretch before them.
“Your generation will transform our economy and create millions of new jobs. You will develop cleaner energy. You will make it so racism only exists in history books. You will be the generation that teaches the world that we are at our best when we recognize, respect, and celebrate our diversity,” he said. “Dream big. And then dream bigger.”
More on graduation:
On the cusp of a dream: Susana Mojica, daughter of immigrants who taught selves to read, write to graduate college
Finding Home: Childhood Hardships Strengthen Starbucks ASU Graduate, Sirikwan O’Gorman.
Alexander Nunes, an immigrant from Jamaica, is the first in his family to graduate from college – and he’s ready to change the world.
Tragedy derailed Laura Fobes’ first shot at a college degree; now the 42-year-old mother of three will walk across the stage in Tempe.