Johanny Rosario Pichardo had a goal of getting her college degree, partly to make her mother proud.
It was the Lawrence, Massachusetts, student’s third try, after abandoning it twice before, she wrote in an essay to Columbia College.
“I decided to attend college to make my mother proud when I receive my degree and because it’ll open a lot of doors for me and make me more valuable,” she wrote.
Pichardo’s mother, Colasa, and sister, Rosie, accepted her degree in human services on her behalf onstage Saturday at the morning Columbia College commencement ceremony.
Pichardo won’t receive all the benefits she envisioned from the online degree. It was awarded posthumously because Marine Sgt. Pichardo died in the waning days of America’s military involvement in Afghanistan.
She was screening women and children trying to flee from the Taliban advance at one of the gates to the Kabul airport when a suicide bomber killed her and a dozen other U.S. service members and 169 Afghans on Aug. 26, 2021. She was 25.
Her sister donned a cap and gown to walk onstage to accept Johanny’s diploma.
“I decided to go to college because I grew up in a single-parent household living within the poverty margins and depending on government assistance,” Pichardo wrote in her essay.
Her mother always stressed to her and her siblings the importance of getting an education so they could have a better life than she did, Pichardo wrote.
Columbia College President David Russell, reading from an account of her final minutes, said Pichardo went to help two women in danger.
Her final words: “They need me, sir.”
“Wherever you go from here, there will be people around you who need you,” Russell told the graduates.
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Before deploying to Afghanistan, Pichardo made the Columbia College Dean’s List, Russell said.
He read from an essay in which Pichardo wrote about being in an abusive relationship from which she escaped.
“Heartbreak is a necessary part of life to make one grow,” Russell read, adding that everyone was heartbroken over Pichardo’s death.
No matter how much we want to escape the pain, we need to feel it in order to benefit from it, he said.
Veterans United Foundation established the Sgt. Johanny Rosario Pichardo Endowed Scholarship to benefit future Columbia College students with military connections, he said.
Audience members in the Southwell Complex rose to their feet in honor of Pichardo. They stood again for the Marine Corp Hymn, played by the Kansas City St. Andrew Pipes & Drums.
There were 210 students receiving degrees from Columbia College in the morning ceremony. Another 195 students graduated in the afternoon.
There were 68 students receiving their nurse’s pin in a Friday ceremony.
Others receiving diplomas on Saturday included Saurav Bhattari, from Nepal. He has a job with Google lined up.
Emma Chedwick, who graduated with bachelor’s degrees in accounting and business administration and in criminal justice, gave the student commencement address. She has been accepted into the University of Missouri School of Law.
When she told her professors about being accepted into law school, she said they wanted to tell their wives immediately, an example of the connections students have with professors at Columbia College, she said.
Her first grade at Columbia College was 30%, which she said caused her to doubt her entire education.
“Failure genuinely does not matter in the long run,” Chedwick said.
She asked fellow graduates to raise their hand if they ever failed a test, paper or assignment at Columbia College, and nearly every hand went up.
You will fail until you don’t, she said.
“Failure does not matter, not only in school, but for everything,” Chedwick said.
Her other points: always ask questions and be human.
“We have a duty to experience life, not just be alive,” she said of the final point.
Roger McKinney is the education reporter for the Tribune. You can reach him at [email protected] or 573-815-1719. He’s on Twitter at @rmckinney9.