At a university founded 128 years ago on the premise that education changes lives, the class of 2015 offered strong support for that mission.
The University of North Carolina at Pembroke conferred degrees on 99 graduate students on Friday in the Givens Performing Arts Center and 464 undergraduates on Saturday in the Main Gym of the English E. Jones Health and Physical Education Center.
It was the first commencement weekend for new Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings, who said that, as a youth, the site of Old Main on the university’s campus was a constant reminder of the power of education to transform lives, families and entire communities.
“UNC Pembroke has a long history,” Chancellor Cummings told the graduates. “This is a place where faculty and staff are focused on changing lives through education. Wherever you want to go in life, you can get there from here.
“This university has changed your life through education, and now it is your duty to better the lives of others,” he said.
The commencement speaker for both occasions was Dr. Siva Mandjiny, a chemistry professor and recipient of the 2015 UNC Board of Governors Award for Teaching Excellence. Dr. Mandjiny, whose passion for science and teaching, has come to symbolize great teaching and learning at UNCP.
“Teaching and learning are next to godliness,” he said. “This explains why so many of us think about students as our children. Each one of you whom I have had the privilege to teach will be mine forever, and your success will always be the wings that will continue to inspire my teaching. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be your teacher.”
Dr. Mandjiny is an outstanding scholar who has mentored more then 100 student research projects. Science is poetry for this teacher, and teaching is the source of his daily inspiration.
But Dr. Mandjiny’s bliss came at a price of grit and shear determination. From the Tamil region of India, he studied in three languages, and he did not know a word of French when he embarked on a Ph.D. program in France.
“Determination to succeed is what took me across three continents,” Dr. Mandjiny said. “Every moment of your life when you face struggle, think of it as a challenge and as a learning opportunity.”
Dr. Mandjiny’s speech covered all the characteristics students will need for a successful future. The final word was “joy,” very appropriate for commencement.
“For me (joy) happens every day when I come to campus, when I get to interact with each and every one of my students. Those of you who know me and had one of my classes you know I love questions.
“When I hear the confused voice of a student asking a question, it is the best feeling I have, as it allows me the opportunity to dispel the confusion and all of this brings me true happiness, being with my students in my classroom,” Dr. Mandjiny concluded. “Where does your true happiness happen? Make sure that your job and career choice brings you “joie de vivre” and an excitement to each day.
“I know that not every day is going to be a party, but you have the power to turn each day into a worthwhile experience.”
The graduates talked about their lives, careers and opportunities that a college degree affords them. They are as diverse as the university itself, and they took different paths, in education and life, to graduation day.
“I did everything I could to accomplish as much as could here,” said Michael Mollohan, a 47-year-old Army veteran from Raeford, N.C. “I joined the Honors College and interned at the new Entrepreneurship Incubator. I have already started work on an MBA (Master of Business Administration), and I will be a graduate assistant at the incubator.”
Mollohan, who earned a business degree, graduated on Saturday with his son, Patrick, a computer science major with ambitions to move to Seattle to join the industry there.
Kevin Melvin, a Pembroke native, will use his degree in American Indian Studies to work with youth. “I got tired of working manual labor, so I decided to go to school,” said Melvin. “Here, I found a wife and got married, and I found a whole bunch of friends by joining a fraternity, something I said I would never do.
“It’s changed my life…tremendously,” Melvin said.
The future is wide open for criminal justice major Stephanie Miller. “At UNCP, I got solid training in my field,” she said. “Here, I learned to love learning. I did not have that before.”
Virginia native Katrina Callahan earned a Master of Public Administration (MPA) degree online and was on campus for the first time ever meeting classmates who had never seen each other in person before. “I got a new job and a raise,” she said. “I’m a master scheduler for Navy submarines.”
Asheboro, N.C., native Heather Thomas also earned an MPA degree. “I got a new job and a promotion in the Department of Social Services,” she said. “I will supervise adoptions.”
From Raleigh, N.C., Heather Norton earned a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, the third degree she has earned from UNCP. “I will remain in nursing, but I’ve been offered a job teaching at Wake Tech,” she said.
Cheryl Speights has worked 28 years as a nurse and 22 years at the Richmond County (N.C.) Health Department. An MSN degree earned her a promotion to director.
There was one more family affair at Winter Commencement 2015. Husband and wife team, Orrick and Shakeanma McDougald, earned matching Bachelor of Social Work degrees. From Richmond County, they started their quest for a four-year degree at Sandhills Community College.
“It was perfect; the professors were very kind and considerate because we have jobs and children,” Orrick McDougald said. “It benefitted us academically and financially. I work in the public schools, and I can show the kids what that piece of paper can do for you.”
Like many graduates, McDougald said he would continue his studies. The sun was shining on his family. On a sunny and unusually warm day in Pembroke, nearly 600 changed went their separate ways into the future.