Commencement Feature: Ramona Ellison-Lewis graduates with a degree 25 years in the making

After starting classes in 1995, Ramona Ellison-Lewis will graduate with a degree in criminal justice this December.

Ramona Ellison-Lewis’s dad used to joke that when it came to college, she was on the “10-year program.”

“He thought that was funny,” Ellison-Lewis said, laughing. This December, 25 years since she started taking classes at UCCS, she will (finally) get to show her dad her degree.

When Ellison-Lewis started taking classes at UCCS in 1995, things looked a little different. There were no residence halls on campus. The UCCS mascot was a giraffe, not a mountain lion. Ellison-Lewis was taking courses in the Science Building – now called Centennial Hall – to earn a degree in journalism, which no longer exists. And her first stint in college wasn’t perfect.

“I flunked out,” Ellison-Lewis said. “Academic probation, suspension – all of it.”

A lot has changed since then.

Technically, Ellison-Lewis hasn’t spent all 25 years of her degree journey in school. She got married and raised a family. She has held jobs and internships and gained certifications. In 2009, after transferring credits from Pikes Peak Community College back to UCCS, she began taking classes when her son was in school so she wouldn’t have to hire a babysitter.

And when she graduates this December, she will have earned a degree in criminal justice with a nearly-perfect 3.9 GPA.

Ellison-Lewis shows one of her old student ID cards.

Most importantly, she’s discovered a passion: mediation to resolve civil disputes.

It all started back in 2009, when Ellison-Lewis needed to take some electives. Thinking she might have an interest in law, she chose an introduction to criminal justice course with instructor Paul Guidry.

“Paul Guidry was phenomenal,” Ellison-Lewis said. “He sparked my whole interest in the subject. You know when you have a teacher who really inspires you with their knowledge and passion of a subject? He was that for me.”

That year, Ellison-Lewis and Guidry established the Criminal Justice Society, a student organization within the School of Public Affairs.

Guidry also helped Ellison-Lewis discover her professional path in mediation. As part of their volunteer efforts, they worked with the Colorado Springs Teen Court, a restorative justice nonprofit that trains teenagers to steer juvenile misdemeanor defendants away from self-destructive decisions and towards more productive life choices.

Ellison-Lewis earned a certification to become one of the program’s trained restorative mediators, acting as a neutral party that helps defendants, parents and victims come up with a plan to repair the harm caused by the defendant.

The certification charted her way forward. Now that she has a bachelor’s degree under her belt, she is qualified to take her next professional step: earning a certification in divorce mediation.

“I’m a peacekeeper – I’m good at settling things between people,” she said. “After considering so many different careers, it was a natural progression. I just thought it was amazing that you could get your degree in something you were so interested in.”

With a four-year degree under her belt, Ellison-Lewis is qualified to earn a certification in divorce mediation, her next professional step.

Ellison-Lewis credits Guidry’s passion for criminal justice and strong mentorship for lighting a spark in her and fueling her drive to earn a degree. But she also drew inspiration from a source closer to home: her son.

“I wanted my son to look at me, and say, ‘My mom did that,” Ellison-Lewis said.

“You push your kids to go to college, get their degree and get a job. But if I didn’t have my degree, I wouldn’t be able to say that. I wanted to leave a legacy for my kids. I wanted for them to be able to say, ‘My mom went to college, and I can, too.’”

Just as she has created success in so many other areas of her life, her legacy is already leaving its mark. Ellison-Lewis’ oldest son, Alexander, will graduate from high school next May and plans to earn a degree in music at CU Denver.

And though they could have graduated together, Ellison-Lewis is excited to celebrate her own graduation this December.

“After all the time I spent earning this degree, I need my own time to shine,” she said.

Ellison-Lewis will be one of a record-setting 1,100 graduates from the summer and fall semesters at UCCS. She will celebrate her achievement during the 2020 fall commencement ceremony on Dec. 18. Congratulations to Ramona and the Class of 2020!