Here are a few highlights of this weekend’s Kansas University commencement:
Today • 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., KU Visitor Center open at 1502 Iowa.
Sunday • 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Memorial Drive closed to traffic. (Parking ban begins midnight Saturday.) • 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Class of 2009 commencement lunch. Chancellor's residence, 1532 Lilac Lane. • 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., KU Visitor Center open at 1502 Iowa. • 2 p.m., commencement participants assemble on Memorial Drive. • 2:30 p.m., commencement procession begins.
Dan Parker knew he wanted to be in the Marine Corps when he received his first Gung-Ho G.I. Joe — outfitted in classic dress blues.
Parker grew up in Fredonia and then McPherson with his mom, Sherrilyn Gerdel; dad, Craig; and older brother, Matt. At age 14, Dan lost his brother to a boating accident.
Growing up in smaller Kansas towns, he said, gave him a thirst to experience more of what the world had to offer.
Shortly after the start of his senior year at McPherson High, Parker enlisted in the Marine Corps, both to fulfill his childhood dream and to see the world.
In Parker’s six years as a Marine, he saw 17 countries and served two tours in Iraq.
“The biggest thing you pick up is everybody kind of wants the same thing in life,” he said.
He’s learned everyone wants to live comfortably, without worrying about war, famine or disease — something he said he was able to do through the Marine Corps.
Parker was released from service in May 2005. The following August, at age 23, he returned to Kansas to go to college.
But his first year really wasn’t the homecoming he expected.
He didn’t know how to find other veterans, couldn’t pay tuition on time because of the cycles of his military income and wasn’t able to find any scholarships for veterans.
“A lot of people support vets, “ he said. “But a lot of people, when they’re not posed with it, don’t really think about them.”
In summer 2006, Parker and a few friends decided to help reintegrate vets into college life. First, Parker created the Collegiate Veterans Association, a networking group for veterans. He said taking classes with 18-year-olds at age 23 made it difficult to make friends.
“You would think that the experience of being a veteran would be the real separating factor,” he said. “But more than anything, it was age.”
Parker wasn’t done.
During the next two years, he helped create a new tuition payment plan for veterans that allows them to pay tuition throughout the semester without penalty.
He helped establish the Kansas Military Service Scholarship, which pays for 10 full-time semesters for Kansas high school graduates returning to college from service.
And he helped create a new, easy entry-and-exit program for students who are activated in the middle of a semester.
Felix Zacharias returned as a sophomore from Iraq in 2007. He was connected with Collegiate Veterans before he returned.
“If I hadn’t joined, I probably wouldn’t be doing half the things I’m doing now, which for me is a personal best,” he said of the group Parker formed.
Parker is graduating with department honors in political science and a minor in English. He said he hasn’t found a job yet, but hopes to find one with the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.
Although he’s left behind a legacy of aid for returning veterans, he said he still wishes he could have done more.