Recognition for four graduating students with perfect GPAs, presentation of an award to one of the University of North Carolina System’s premier teachers, and the inspiring success stories of two other graduating students were among the highlights Friday and Saturday (May 10-11) as WCU held a trio of commencement exercises.
Commencement for WCU’s Graduate School was held Friday night. Saturday included a morning ceremony for the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Education and Allied Professions, and Belcher College of Fine and Performing Arts, followed by an afternoon commencement for the colleges of Business, Health and Human Sciences, and Engineering and Technology. All three ceremonies were presided over by WCU Interim Chancellor Alison Morrison-Shetlar, with Acting Provost Carol Burton presenting candidates for degrees.
After grades from final exams are tallied and academic records finalized, WCU’s spring class, including recipients of both undergraduate and graduate degrees, is expected to total more than 1,650 graduates, which would be the largest class in university history and WCU’s eighth-straight record spring class. About 1,500 graduating students were expected to participate in the events at Ramsey Regional Activity Center as their families and friends looked on.
Four University Scholars – undergraduate students who enrolled at WCU as freshmen and completed all their studies with perfect 4.0 GPAs – were honored during the Saturday events. Those students, with their majors and hometowns listed, are Carson Gilleland, biology, Taylorsville; Madison Hale, criminal justice, Rockwell; Elise Holbrook, communication, Walkertown; and Taylor Luibrand, management, Winston-Salem.
Dana Stockton, a graduate student receiving his master’s degree through WCU’s online program in human resources, was the featured speaker for the Graduate School ceremony. The resident of Melbourne, Florida, told those in attendance that he grew up in a trailer park in South Carolina in a family that struggled to make ends meet. “Kids like me and others from my neighborhood were almost certain to become some sort of statistic, and many did whether it was alcoholism, drugs, teenage pregnancy, high school dropout or jail,” he said.
Stockton said he was “an underperforming student at best” in high school and later joined the U.S. Marine Corps, heading out on an unknown path that “presented a new world of opportunities.” He eventually earned his associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees at various colleges and was deployed to Japan, Korea, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. After 22 years in the Marines, he made the transition back into civilian life and worked at a Fortune 200 company advising senior leaders about talent management and workforce planning. He is now employed as human resources manager for Harris Corporation of Palm Bay, Florida.
Stockton told the graduating students he has learned that saying “yes” to opportunities when they come along is crucial. “Sometimes opportunity may be a scary proposition,” he said. “Joining the Marine Corps and the fear of the unknown were both exciting and scary all at the same time. However, I can only imagine where I would be had I not said ‘yes’ to that opportunity.”
The Saturday morning undergraduate commencement included the presentation of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching to John Whitmire, WCU associate professor of philosophy, who was recently announced as one of 17 recipients of that honor across the UNC System. After accepting his award, the resident of Candler led the Ramsey Center audience in reciting an early “happy Mother’s Day” for the mothers present.
Whitmire told the graduating students that “commencement is not just about looking backward at who we have been. It’s primarily, as the very word suggests, about moving forward – commencing, starting a new journey, a new quest.” And real choices – commitments – also are always about the future, he said.
“They’re about choosing something – or someone – to commit yourself to, over and over and over again,” he said. “And if you don’t recommit yourself to that person, to that goal, to that quest every day, you haven’t made a genuine commitment.
“Now, some people think that a wholehearted commitment like this to anything makes you an extremist, and extremism is kind of a bad word today,” Whitmire said. “But, as Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us, ‘The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice.’ Whatever you commit to, and whoever you commit to becoming going forward, we will always look forward to welcoming you back here, when you return as our friends.”
The Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching is given annually to a faculty member on each UNC campus to recognize superior teaching. Whitmire received his award from Board of Governors member Carolyn Coward, who also delivered greetings and congratulations to the graduating students at all three commencements on behalf of the board, UNC System Interim President Bill Roper and the staff in the system office. Pat Kaemmerling, chair of the WCU Board of Trustees, provided greetings on behalf of the trustees at the three ceremonies.
Antonio Oakley of Charlotte, a member of the spring class receiving his bachelor’s degree in computer information systems, was the primary speaker for the Saturday afternoon undergraduate commencement. Oakley said he was not an “all-star student” and lacked self-confidence as a high school student, but he knew he wanted to go to college. “In May of 2014, Western Carolina University decided to take a chance on me,” he said. “WCU saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
Oakley said he was in awe when he arrived on campus to start classes. “There was nothing around that looked familiar to me,” he said. “Now, I know Charlotte is not the biggest city, but Cullowhee was totally new. I had never seen so much open space or bugs this big. I was in this new place that was completely out of my comfort zone with this newfound freedom and responsibility that I had no idea how to handle.”
Oakley said over-involvement in nonacademic activities during his freshman year affected his grades, and his academics continued to decline his sophomore year, but then he decided to make some changes. “I realized that I could do what I wanted to do, if I made checkpoints,” he said. “To succeed academically, I committed to studying. I locked myself in the library and became more open to criticism and feedback. I worked on me and trusted in my own potential. I was transparent with myself about what I was not doing and rebuilt my own self-esteem. I set goals and tracked my progress.
“Some students have straight A’s or are on the dean’s list – and they have worked hard for that,” Oakley said. “But some students like me have stumbled, and that’s okay because at the end of the day we are all walking across the same stage and we are all Catamounts.”
All three commencements included remarks by Ed Holland, president of the WCU Alumni Association, and special recognition for members of the graduating class who are active duty members of the military, veterans or members of the National Guard and Reserves.
Morrison-Shetlar delivered the charge to the graduating students at the three ceremonies. She congratulated them on doing the hard work it took to earn their degrees and said it is now up to them to create the world in which they wish to live.
“Graduates, each of you have worked diligently, passionately and tirelessly, earning the distinct privilege to be seated before us today,” Morrison-Shetlar said. “You have believed in your dreams. You have set sights on your goals. You have completed all the difficult and necessary tasks to reach this day, a day that represents one of the most significant milestones in your lifetime – a milestone that makes possible a future of unlimited possibilities.
“Graduates, once upon a time, we stood before you to lead the way. Today, we stand behind you, ready to follow, and we stand beside you, ready to serve as you lead us into the future.”
A complete list of WCU’s new graduates will be announced following the posting of grades from final examinations.