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2019 Spring Commencement ceremonies set for Friday, Saturday

Kaitlan Smith

Kaitlan Smith knows firsthand how pharmaceutical research and new drug development changes lives.

It changed hers.

As a child, Smith lived with chronic idiopathic urticaria which caused her body to break out in severe hives. There was no cure at the time.

A year prior to Smith enrolling at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, a new medication called Xolair hit the market.

“Once I prescribed this medication it was like my entire quality of life changed overnight,” she said. “That experience helped me decide that discovering new medicines to help those with unmet medical needs is truly what I want to do.

“I have a goal and a dream to provide the same service to others that may be suffering from an illness that does not yet have an effective treatment,” she said.

Smith will take the first steps toward her goal when she joins 733 graduate and undergraduate candidates at UNC Pembroke’s Spring Commencement. In the fall, she will enroll in the pharmaceutical Ph.D. program at UNC Chapel Hill.

Smith grew up in Fuquay-Varina but has strong family ties in Robeson County.  

Twins Cheyenne and Dakota Lee of Cheraw, S.C., will continue their education journey at Emory University and University of South Carolina School of Medicine, respectively. Cheyenne has been accepted into the microbiology and molecular genetics graduate program. She has set her sights on obtaining a Ph.D. in the field of microbiology.

Dakota’s research interests lie primarily in advanced prosthetics and regenerative medicines. The Lee twins, along with Smith, were RISE Fellows, at UNCP.

Kimberly Fuqua will be studying alongside the country’s elite at Cornell University in the fall. The Lumberton native has been accepted into Cornell’s Institute of Public Affairs where she will work toward a master’s degree in public administration.

Fuqua’s UNCP experience included two study abroad trips to the United Kingdom and Berlin. After grad school, she has plans to return overseas to embark on a career with the Department of Defense in the area of public education policy.

Smith, Fuqua and the Lee twins will be among a number of American Indian graduates on the receiving end of wisdom and advice offered by president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Jefferson Keel.

Keel will deliver the commencement address at The Graduate School ceremony at Givens Performing Arts Center Friday and the undergraduate ceremony on the Quad on Saturday.

Keel is well known and respected across the nation as head of NCAI, the largest American Indian government organization in the country. He serves as Lieutenant Governor of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma and a member of the Tribal Law and Order Commission.

Conner Sandefur, a biology professor and fellow member of the Chickasaw Nation, will introduce Keel. Throughout his five terms in office, Keel has expanded tribal members’ access to services in education, healthcare and housing.

“His commitment to education is what has brought him to this stage to speak to you today. His unyielding belief in the power of education as a tool for uplifting communities is an inspiration to us all and makes me proud to call him my Lieutenant Governor.”

Larry Townsend of Pembroke served with NCAI alongside Keel as vice president for the Southeast United States.

“When I called Jefferson, he said he would honored to speak at commencement,” Townsend said. “He will bring a message of inspiration and encouragement. For decades, he has been a voice for American Indians in Washington, D.C. He is committed to moving Indian Country forward together, not just a part, but as a whole.”

This will mark Keel’s second visit to UNCP. He toured the campus and met with faculty, staff and students in September 2017.

Both ceremonies will be available live streamed at