PEMBROKE. – In two commencement ceremonies on Friday and Saturday, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke conferred degrees on 670 students.
On Friday, 144 students were “hooded” by the School of Graduate Studies in the Givens Performing Arts Center. On Saturday, 526 undergraduates were awarded degrees on the quad.
On Saturday morning, graduates streamed across campus and over the bridge into 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,” 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. 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 think about the students who have gone before you; and think about the founders whose vision and persistence established this university.”
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.
“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 law professor and former 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. It was the beginning of the most diverse and successful 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 said. “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. You must learn the difference between knowledge and nonsense.”
Just as the indigenous people of America made an “astonishing recovery in the face of insurmountable odds … humanity is resilient,” Gover said. 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. I can’t wait to see what you do with our world.”
In his address Friday evening, Joseph Lakatos, a UNCP business professor, gave advice from a man who was told years ago that he had three months to live.
“Tonight we are all young, so let’s set the world on fire,” Lakatos said quoting lyrics from the band Fun. “Life is truly short. Use tonight as a stepping stone to an extraordinary life.”
It is not true that good advice is 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. “I’d say back, ‘I am because I’m beautiful, intelligent and ambitious.’ Only I could say ambitious because I was missing some teeth at age 4.”
“Magna cum laude!” said her mother, Susie Quintal.
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. My children said I should go back to school in elementary education,” Teri Woods said. “I will graduate in 2014.”
Her mother must have prepared her well; 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 at UNCP, had just learned that she and all three of her classmates had earned certification from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. Her advice: “It was a difficult exam; we helped each other.” She 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. “I’m waiting to hear from three law schools.”