The Verizon Center has plenty of fanfare in store for summer. Maybe it's Coldplay. Maybe it's Cirque du Soleil. Whatever the performance, whatever the game, none of it really compares to what's in store Saturday, when the center becomes the venue for the D.C.-area commencement ceremony for Strayer University graduates. With more than 50,000 students enrolled in Strayer classes online and on campuses across the country, it's not the size of Strayer that outshines the more traditional fare. Rather, it's the people. Brian Markowski is one of them.
At the June 23 ceremony, Markowski, a gay D.C. resident and Air Force veteran, will receive his master's degree in science information systems. He'll also have the distinction of being named ''Outstanding Student'' of this particular graduating class.
''I think there were more than 100 entries, maybe 200,'' Markowski says of applying to be named the Outstanding Student, an honor requiring maintaining a 4.0 grade point average and a further demonstration of merit. ''I thought that with my background, that I kept pursuing my education, I had a shot.''
While credit goes to Markowski, 43, for continuing his studies after leaving the Air Force – first earning his bachelor's degree, also from Strayer, in 2000 – the journey has meant more than just being diligent. His retina detaching was one obstacle he faced while pursuing his master's. The death of his maternal aunt, Theresa Markowski, about three years ago was a greater burden.
''She was one of my mentors for as long as I can remember,'' says Markowski of his aunt, who died of pancreatic cancer. With his parents having separated when he was 6, his aunt had a big role in his upbringing. ''If my mother wasn't there, she was there. She always pushed me. Whenever I was down and needed that little push, she was there.''
She was also there to see her nephew accept his bachelor's degree. Saturday, Markowski says, she will be there in spirit. Others, who weren't at that last ceremony, may help fill the void.
Joining his partner in the audience will be Markowski's mother, returning from Connecticut, holding a photo of her late sister. Making the trip for the first time are his father and his paternal grandmother.
''I'm so honored just for us to be together,'' he says. ''We've not been together, collectively, since I was 6 years old. To me, it's a huge deal. I get a little emotional about it.''
Markowski says that while there won't be time in the program Saturday for him to deliver a speech, he has a pretty good idea of what he would say.
''I'd definitely like to relay a message of hope, that you've got to persevere,'' he says, adding that it's much more gratifying to receive the Outstanding Student recognition as an out gay man than it was to receive Air Force honors at a time when ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' forced him to remain closeted. ''If you don't persevere, you'll always second-guess yourself. And if I can do it, I know anyone can do it. That's not only about getting a degree, but with anything.''