Among the excited graduates gathering today for the pomp and circumstance at Troy University is a special group of students.
The Covington Police Department announced that 16 of its officers and employees, or nearly one-fourth of the CPD staff, recently received their undergraduate or graduate degrees.
"I'm extremely proud of all the hard work these men and women put into advancing their education," said CPD Chief Stacey Cotton.
"It's a unique situation in law enforcement to have that many people seek their degrees and complete them," said Capt. Ken Malcom, who received his master's in criminal justice from Troy University.
Out of the 62 employees of the CPD, 45 percent have at least one degree and 22 earned at least one degree while working for the department, according to Malcolm.
The department worked with Troy University, which has more than 800 students enrolled in its Covington campus, to allow a cohort of about 13 employees to go through the program together.
The support and momentum they gave each other was crucial Malcom said.
He described the challenge of continuing to pursue his degree after losing his daughter, Mary Beth.
"I didn't feel like going back to school," Malcom said. "If it wasn't for that group of people, I don't know that I would have done it."
The availability of more programs tailored to working adults continuing their education, such as Troy, Mercer University, Georgia Perimeter College, DeKalb Technical College and development of online classes were factors in allowing employees to pursue their degrees.
The officers also took advantage of an educational assistance program offered by the city of Covington, which reimburses city employees for up to two classes per academic session toward a degree, with the requirement that the employee remain with the city for two years afterward. City employees also receive pay incentives to obtain their degrees.
For CPD Records Custodian Cheryl Vaughn, the assistance program and incentives, along with the availability of online courses, made it possible for her to obtain her associate's degree in business this March. She pointed out that higher education was one of the few ways for civilian CPD staff to get ahead, whereas officers can also pursue certifications and additional training.
The single mother of a high school freshman said online courses allowed her to work on her assignments in the little quiet time she had after household chores, making dinner, shuttling her daughter to extracurricular sports and activities and helping her with her homework.
She admitted it was hard sometimes.
"On weekends, you could be doing something else," said Vaughn. "You've got to put things on hold."
CPD Officer Stanley Moore, who just completed his master's degree in criminal justice, agreed.
"You have to separate the things that aren't important to you and that are important to you," he said.
"But it many of the skills that make a good police officer, such as street smarts and assertiveness, can't be taught in college," Malcom said. Education can help enhance other necessary skills.
"It helps them because they're more flexible in their thinking. They're exposed to a lot during the process of education," he said. "It helps others understand the diversity of the community."
On the county level, Newton County Sheriff's Office deputies and employees receive pay incentives for higher education as well - an increase of 5 percent for an associate's, 10 percent for a bachelor's, and 15 percent for a master's degree, according to Human Resources Director Becky Heisten.
Sheriff Joe Nichols said a number of NCSO employees have received their master's degrees in the past several years and that the department encourages and works with employees pursing higher education.
"I always tell people this is not a job, it's a profession," Nichols said. "Anything anyone can do to further their professionalism I encourage."