TEMPE, Ariz. – Home is the word that kept coming up at the Starbucks Partner and Family Forum held today at Arizona State University.
An hour before the forum started, hundreds had already lined the hallway in Sun Devil Fitness Center so they’d be sure to get a seat. It’s graduation week at ASU and more than 260 Starbucks partners are getting degrees they earned through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan.
Packed crowd leapt to their feet and phones on outstretched arms winked as Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz walked to the front of the room.
“Wow. You’re going to make me cry,” he said.
Asking the graduates to stand and be recognized, he said, “In the almost 50 years of Starbucks being in business this has to be one of the most – if not, the most, significant milestones.”
By the end of the year, 1,000 partners are expected to graduate through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan program and more than 7,000 are currently working toward their bachelor’s degrees. Starbucks goal is to have 25,000 graduates from the online ASU program by 2025.
More than half the people who start college degrees don’t finish, Schultz said, often because they can’t afford it. Through the college achievement program, eligible partners based in the U.S. can have their tuition reimbursed and graduate debt free.
Schultz gave credit to Dr. Michael Crow, president of ASU, for being willing to join with Starbucks in the endeavor.
“It’s quite an unorthodox partnership between a university and a public company,” Schultz told the crowd. “Things like this just don’t happen. It happened because of unbelievable collaboration with ASU and the leadership and partnership of Michael Crow.”
While Schultz began the event standing at the front of the room, he didn’t stay there long – moving into the crowd to give hugs and pose for selfies as partner after partner told their stories.
‘Thank you for giving me a home’
David Maladra, 23, took the microphone to recognize his girlfriend, Brittany LaMaide, who is graduating through the College Achievement Plan, but then told Schultz his story. Five years ago, he was working at a fast food job but felt isolated, spending hours at home alone in his room teaching himself magic tricks. But then a Starbucks store manager came through the drive-through, handed him his card and invited him to come interview. He did and was hired.
“For the first time, I felt like I was a part of something,” he told Schultz. At Starbucks, he met LaMaide, became fast friends with other partners and began to feel like he mattered. Now he’s also studying in the ASU program and is working on a degree in organizational leadership.
“I don’t know anyone here, except (LaMaide),” he said, “but I’m able to get up in front of (Schultz) and say something that means so much to me: Thank you for giving me a home.”
That sentiment was echoed repeatedly by those from military families who thanked Starbucks for their commitment to them, partners with health issues who were covered by Starbucks insurance, and graduates who never thought they’d be able to afford a college degree.
“I’m so thankful you are passionate about the military. It means a lot that you haven’t forgotten us,” one partners who spent six years in the reserves told Schultz.
Starbucks set and exceeded a goal of hiring 10,000 veterans and military spouses by 2018. The new goal is 40,000 by 2025.
”Two-and-a-half million have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. A million plus have come home and been misunderstood,” Schultz said. “One of the most satisfying things we’ve done is not hire military veterans, but working alongside military veterans.”
Jamie Garner was with her elementary school-aged daughter, Carole. Garner is graduating with a degree in world history with a minor in philosophy.
“Originally, I wanted to be a teacher. But Starbucks fills that need, by being able to mentor and help others.”
Getting a degree had seemed like an unobtainable goal for the divorced mother of two but “when I saw Starbucks paid for college I signed up as soon as I could.” Garner is currently an assistant store manager in Minneapolis but just this morning got a call that she’s getting her own store, she said, an announcement met with applause.
“It’s all happening at once,” she said.
‘You saved my life’
Carmel Thomas, a 10-year Starbucks partner, is the sixth of seventh children and the first to finish a college degree. She’s graduating with a degree in mass media communications and a 4.0 grade point average.
At the forum, she thanked Schultz for changing her life. She has a health condition and has had eight surgeries in four years that were all paid for with Starbucks health insurance. “You saved my life,” she told him.
As the forum ended, Schultz turned the attention back to the graduates.
“It is not easy to go back to school,” he said. “It is not easy to make sacrifices. From my heart - the pride that I have to be your partner.”
Heidi Peiper / Starbucks Newsroom contributed to this report.
At Arizona State University’s spring graduation exercises May 8 in Tempe, Ariz., Starbucks executive chairman Howard Schultz will give his first-ever commencement address. More than 260 partners are graduating from ASU, the biggest-yet partner graduating class. Starbucks College Achievement Plan graduates will be in the audience. Commencement will be streamed live at 7:30 p.m. Mountain Standard Time (7:30 p.m. Pacific Time) at http://www.ustream.tv/asutv.
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.