Bobbing balloons and bouquets of flowers sat on the laps of family and friends of more than 140 graduates who walked across the stage to receive their diplomas at the 22nd annual Commanding General’s Off-Duty Education Graduation at the Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune base theater, Friday.

More than 400 total degrees and certificates were awarded to active-duty service members, dependents, retirees and civilians through the Camp Lejeune and New River alternative campuses during the academic year.

Col. Michael Scalise took a moment before the passing of diplomas to speak to the graduates and families present, his first official duty as commander of Marine Corps Installations East.

“Today’s event exemplifies the dedication of our service members to their families and their civilian community. Their commitment to improving themselves as well as the Marine Corps, is apparent today,” said Scalise. “The pursuit of a degree, and ultimately obtaining that goal, will unquestionably better prepare our Marines and Sailors as they make their transitions into civilian life.”

Scalise explained more than 3,073 active-duty Marines participated in the voluntary off-duty education programs both on Camp Lejeune and New River during the past academic year, earning degrees and certificates from six different institutions.

Representatives from Campbell University, Coastal Carolina Community College, Southern Illinois University Carbondale, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Boston University Metropolitan College and Webster University were present at the ceremony to honor the graduates.

Marines and Sailors also participated in the Veterans in Piping program as well as Military Academic Skills program, both of which are furthering education options the John A. Lejeune Education Center.

The group of graduates completed degrees in a variety of ways including traditional ground-campus classes, online courses and a combination of the two, said Scalise.

Just as the ways the degrees were earned varied, so too did the demographic of those receiving them.

“The vast majority of our graduates are nontraditional students,” said Scalise. “They are Marines and Sailors. Some of them who have continued to pursue their educational goals even while deployed. They are spouses who have faced the challenges of relocation every few years and having to start over. They are retirees who after years of service to this country who are showing us that it is never too late to start.”

Before turning the stage over to the graduates, Scalise congratulated them as well as shared parting words for their future.

“My advice to you is this, don’t change who you are. When you begin to move on to whatever profession you choose, or the continuation of your service, or some type of business, always remember the person that is conducting the interview is looking for the person who had the discipline, who took the time out of their lives, and made the sacrifices for their families to get here,” said Scalise. “That’s who they are looking for. That’s who you are. Don’t go changing because you think that’s what someone wants to hear. You are who you are. You’re who got you here so continue to be that person.”

Husband and wife, Joe and Karen Esala, followed in each other’s footsteps at the ceremony, each receiving their master’s degrees.

Joe, a Marine Corps veteran, graduated with a master’s degree in computer information systems from Boston College. Karen graduated with her second master’s degree in social work from UNCW.

The couple have had a busy year getting married in December, graduating this month and welcoming their first baby in October.

“This is very special for us,” said Karen. “We will be able to look back at this and show our daughter what we’ve accomplished.”

Joe said Karen was the person who encouraged him to further his education, having earned his degree through the tuition assistance program while he was in the Marine Corps.

His time in the Marine Corps helped prepare him for completing his master’s degree.

“I went from working 60-80 hours a week in the Marine Corps to 40 hours a week, plus going to school,” said Joe. “I almost had too much time on my hands.”

Both Karen and Joe want to encourage anyone considering furthering their education to take advantage of the programs offered here on base as well as the lower tuition costs in North Carolina.

“I recommend every Marine to go to college, use their benefits to better themselves,” said Joe. “If you don’t use that, you’re throwing away all of that help.”

“The tassel is worth the hassle,” joked Karen.