Thousands to graduate from Iowa universities this weekend

Iowa State boasts record winter commencement

Kevin Burgoni, 22, is graduating from Iowa State University, after recovering from a brain tumor that delayed his education. (Photo by Christopher Gannon, provided by Iowa State)
Kevin Burgoni, 22, is graduating from Iowa State University, after recovering from a brain tumor that delayed his education. (Photo by Christopher Gannon, provided by Iowa State)

Anyone wanting to congratulate Kevin Burgoni after he crosses the stage during Saturday’s winter commencement at Iowa State University will have to speak into his left ear.

He recently went deaf in his right — inserting a “speed bump” on his road to graduation, slowing his pace but hardly curtailing it.

“Looking back, it was almost a blessing in disguise,” said Burgoni, who had planned to graduate last spring.

Instead, the 22-year-old industrial design major will join a record 2,449 of his ISU peers completing degrees this month — topping last December’s record-setting commencement total by about 300. The surge has Iowa State holding for the first time in eight years two winter graduation ceremonies.

Down the road in Iowa City, the University of Iowa is holding a series of ceremonies this weekend to confer 1,427 graduate and undergraduate degrees — and bestow an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree on UI Professor Emerita and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson.

A faculty member in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for 25 years until her recent retirement in June 2016, Robinson will deliver the keynote address during the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences commencement at 9 a.m. Saturday.

Of this winter’s UI graduates, 26 percent are the first in their family to earn a college degree, and 33 percent identify as a minority. The youngest winter graduate is 20, the oldest is 59, and they reign from 70 Iowa counties, 22 states, and 26 countries.


University of Northern Iowa on Saturday is expecting about 560 graduates to participate in its winter ceremony.

‘The silver lining’

Although crowds cheering on Iowa State grads could get raucous inside Hilton Coliseum — possibly overwhelming Burgoni’s one good ear, which has become increasingly sensitive — he wouldn’t miss the milestone, which seemed in question last year.

On a night in February 2016, the ISU junior had just finished playing a newly-released video game in one sitting — Firewatch. When he stood up, he stumbled. The room spun. His vertigo paired with extreme nausea.

When a portion of his face went numb several days later, he finally called his parents in Naperville.

“They basically said, ‘We’ll see you in six hours,’ and then came out and got me,” Burgoni said.

Extensive tests, including an MRI, revealed a brain tumor growing on the main nerve that leads to the inner ear — called an acoustic neuroma.

“Pretty Crazy stuff to get over the phone,” he said.

Burgoni’s initial panic calmed with the assurance it likely was benign. Still, it had to come out, as it would continue growing and eventually leave him deaf and with a number of other ailments.

Immediate surgery held a small chance of saving his hearing — which the doctor nearly did May 3, 2016.


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“During surgery, they have this special setup on my head,” Burgoni said. “It was like a four-hour surgery, and they said right at the last 30 minutes or so, the signal in my right ear went flat, so I went deaf in that ear. And I’m still deaf in that ear.”

Still, Burgoni returned to Iowa State in time for the second half of the 2016 summer session and picked up where he left off — making some new concessions, both socially and academically.

“The biggest one was I couldn’t go to bars anymore really because there’s just too much noise,” he said. “That kind of sucked.”

Overstimulation on his good ear kept him away from other crowded locations, and directed his seating during meetings, in class, and at restaurants, for example.

“I have had to do some adjustments with walking next to people,” he said. “I’ll usually grab them and move them to my left side.”

Postponing his four-year plan, while inconvenient, put him in the position of needing an internship last summer. He landed one with Vermeer Corporation in Pella.

“The silver lining to all this is, because of the nature of how this all happened, luckily I was able to be in the right place at the right time,” Burgoni said.

The internship ended in a job offer — he’ll become the company’s first industrial designer Jan. 8.

‘Please return the favor’


University of Iowa graduates this weekend include an ambitious storytelling mapmaker who’s landed a job in Little Falls, Minn., after earning her degree in 3.5 years; a first-generation elementary education major headed to Columbus Junction; a journalism major lined up to report for KCCI in Des Moines; and a voice performance and music education major who started his UI career in pursuit of a biology degree but will sing the national anthem for Saturday’s ceremony before he starts teaching and performing with the Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre.

In a message to the campus this week, UI President Bruce Harreld noted this crop of graduates’ accomplishments and said they face “unique challenges” as they leave.

“The university they’re graduating from faces challenges as well,” he wrote — as lawmakers prepare to return for a new legislative session next month after last session slashing support for the public universities’ general education budgets by more than $30 million.

“We need to continue to support students like these,” Harreld wrote, urging the new graduates also “remember that all of the experiences they had at the UI were made possible by a particular set of values that have allowed public universities to thrive.”

“Those values are now being called into question,” he wrote, “And it’s important that those who know firsthand what a public university has to offer acknowledge the opportunities they received here as they go on to greater success.”

Thus, he made a parting philanthropy pitch.

“Never forget that your education was supported by Iowans,” he wrote. “Similarly, in this season of giving, please return the favor by helping others.”

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