In two commencement ceremonies recently, speakers invoked history, both recent and long past, to challenge and counsel graduates. In the two events, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke celebrated the achievements of 670 graduates and its own 125-year history.
On May 4, 144 students received their master’s degree hoods from the School of Graduate Studies in the Givens Performing Arts Center. On May 5, 526 undergraduates accepted their diplomas on the Quad.
On Saturday morning, graduates streamed across campus and over the bridge onto the Quad. Chancellor Kyle R. Carter explained the significance of the procession and set the tone for a historic celebration.
“Two years ago, we started a new tradition of having our freshman walk north across the bridge. Today, our graduates walk south to commencement,” Chancellor Carter said. “They walked through a gauntlet of their professors, who supported them along the way.
“It is natural that we gather here today in the shadow of Old Main, our oldest building and a lasting symbol of the university’s perseverance,” he continued. “You are lucky to be here on this historic moment as the university celebrates its 125th anniversary.
“As you leave us, think about Old Main and the 20,000 students who have gone before you; and think about the founders whose vision and persistence established this university.”
Chancellor Carter said he wanted a commencement speaker worthy of the moment, and he believes he found one in Kevin Gover, executive director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. He is a member of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma.
“I am a big fan of ritual and ceremony,” Gover told the graduates. “This is the way people express their values; this is how we say we respect what you have accomplished.”
Gover, a former law professor and top Bureau of Indian Affairs official, said he is impressed with the story of UNCP’s founding as a college for American Indians. “I am also impressed with your intention to become the leading institution of the study of southeastern American Indians,” he said.
To make a point about the challenges facing the graduates, Gover returned to 1492, “the moment the entire world changed,” he said. “You should know that in 1491, American civilizations were already thousands of years old. At first contact, there were as many people living in the Americas as in Europe.”
Disease decimated 90 percent of that population in “the greatest calamity in the world’s history.” But the story of America’s indigenous people did not end in 1492, Gover said. Like UNCP’s history, the story of the First People is one of perseverance and ultimately triumph. 1492 was not the end; it was the cradle of the creation of the most successful and diverse society the world has known.
“You are heirs of ancient civilizations, and you face steep challenges in a future where we have reached the limits of the earth’s resources,” Gover continued. “We still live in a world of perpetual warfare. But I remain optimistic.
“We live in a world of instantaneous information, but information is not knowledge,” he said. “You must learn the difference between knowledge and nonsense.”
Just as the indigenous people of American made an “astonishing recovery in the face of insurmountable odds … humanity is resilient,” Gover advised. He told the graduates that “saving the world requires more than great ideas; it requires millions and billions of small acts.
“Find the will to prevail,” he concluded. “I can’t wait to see what you do with our world.”
Graduation ceremonies have always been a fount of advice for students who are commencing upon the rest of their lives. In his address Friday evening, Dr. Joseph Lakatos, a UNCP business professor who was told several years ago that he had three months to live, shared some advice of his own.
“Tonight we are all young, so let’s set the world on fire,” Dr. Lakatos said, quoting lyrics from the band Fun. “Life is truly short. Use tonight as a stepping stone to an extraordinary life.”
Good advice is not wasted on youth, said Katie Giddens, who received a Master of Arts in Teaching. “My parents told me to go to graduate school,” she said. “Here I am.”
Rachel Elizabeth Sutton, who received a degree in special education, was getting a big hug from her mother. “When I was little, my mom used to say, ‘you can’t be my daughter,’” she said. Sutton’s mother taught her to say, ‘I am because I’m beautiful, intelligent and ambitious.’ Only I couldn’t say ambitious because I was missing some teeth at age four.”
Her mother, Susie Quintal, beamed: “Magna cum laude!”
Sometimes roles get reversed as this mother-daughter story demonstrates. Teri Woods home schooled her two children, including Jaclyn, who received a Bachelor of Science degree in biology.
“When my little classroom was empty, it was sad,” Teri Woods said. “My children said I should go back to school in elementary education; I will graduate in 2014.”
If Jaclyn’s success at UNCP is any indicator, Teri is a good teacher. Jaclyn graduated summa cum laude and hopes to go to medical school.
Shaun Barefoot, who was president of UNCP’s Student Veterans Association and earned a degree in criminal justice, remembered advice from his gunnery sergeant. “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t achieve your goals,” he said.
Army 2nd Lt. Bernice Stratton, who earned a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing, also invoked military wisdom. “Stop complaining; don’t quit,” she said. “I would also advise young people to consider a military career.”
Pamela Hughes, an Esther Maynor Scholar, had just learned that she and all three of her classmates had earned certification from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. “We helped each other; it was a difficult test.” Hughes will continue her studies at UNC-Chapel Hill in the fall.
Megan Jacobs said her father set expectations high. “He said ‘stay in school and go as far as you can,’” she said. Jacobs is waiting to hear from three law schools.
Advice continued through the weekend ceremonies. Dr. Robin Cummings, chair of UNCP’s board of trustees, asked the graduates to remember a more recent and personal history. “One word: focus,” he advised. “Remember how you got here.”
Chancellor Carter added: “Make a difference. Use what you’ve learned to make a difference in others and in your communities.”
And finally, Walter Davenport, who represented UNC General Administration, said, “It’s your time to celebrate!”