Mark Perryman’s path to his degree at UNC Pembroke was marked with unwavering determination.
An Army veteran who fought in the Gulf War, Perryman has battled cognitive, physical and psychological impairments from injuries he sustained in a horrific parachuting accident at Fort Bragg 30 years ago. At one point, he was forced to take off a semester.
But he persisted and, on Saturday, Perryman proudly turned his tassel along with 667 other graduates at Winter Commencement.
“I’m overjoyed,” said Perryman, who earned a religion and philosophy degree. “I have a heart of compassion. I want to serve people who maybe going through the same thing I’ve been going through.”
The commencement ceremony was held inside a jam-packed English E. Jones Center, where thousands of family and friends cheered their loved ones.
In his keynote address, former UNCP trustee Dr. James “Jim” Jones shared a remarkable story of how–at five years old–he and his four brothers and sisters were abandoned on a farm in Pembroke.
Jones went on to become the first American Indian to graduate from Wake Forest University and Bowman Gray School of Medicine in the 1950s. He later became the founding chair of the Family Medicine program at ECU’s Brody School of Medicine and president of the National Academy of Family Physicians.
“Don’t be discouraged by those who would hold you back,” Jones said. “As you climb the ladder toward success, do not assume that the last step up the ladder you achieved entitles you to the next rung on the ladder.”
He encouraged the graduates, when considering their goals to reach beyond self-interest and to consider the larger world of possibilities.
“Never make your goals solely about what benefits you.”
On Friday evening, UNCP Political Science Professor Kevin Freeman offered several keys to living a fulfilling life to the 179 graduates of The Graduate School gathered at Givens Performing Arts Center. One of the keys was to never stop learning.
“Learning never ends. It’s a lifelong process.”
Trina Preston and Vanness Ross, both 50, proved this and that it’s never too late to get a college education. Preston, an independent business owner from Red Springs, received her MBA. Ross, of Southern Pines, who earned a sociology degree hopes to inspire his son to also complete his education.
Dr. Freeman also encouraged graduates to do something every day that makes them happy, which, he says, is vital to maintaining one’s mental wellness.
“Every one of you is going to continue to do wonderful things that will positively impact the lives of countless people. Your journey is unique, based on your goals and motivations. Just don’t forget to stop and smell the roses.”
Growing up as a military child, Melissa Mojica Cruz, lived in Germany, Oklahoma and Georgia during her father’s two-decade-long career in the U.S. Army. With her social work degree, Cruz wants to become a licensed clinical social worker and provide support to other military families.
“I know what it’s like for a parent not to be home for the holidays or gone for long periods of time. It’s painful. With my degree, I will be able to help that population,” Cruz said.
Ethan Clewis, of Lumberton, earned a history degree, graduating summa cum laude, the highest academic honor. He plans to attend law school, practice criminal law and ultimately, become a judge.
“I can honestly say I’m a much better student and a better all-around person after attending UNCP,” Clewis said.
Aaliyah Weatherington, who earned a degree in geo-environmental studies, has begun applying for GIS specialist positions with companies in Charlotte and Wilmington. The Jacksonville native said her UNCP experience allowed her to tap into undiscovered skills and talents. A once-aspiring teacher, she found her passion for mapping after taking a cartography course her freshman year.
“UNCP definitely changed me as a person. It gave me an experience that opened my eyes and helped me learn new things about myself,” Weatherington said.
It was a family affair for Kenda Collins Bird and her niece, Kenissa Bird, both earned a master of school administration.
ROTC cadets Anthony Bullard, Ilvin Hernandez and Philip Reilly received, perhaps, the loudest applause when it was announced they each were commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
New college graduate and soon-to-be new mother Whitney Wilson may have to put her career as a school guidance counselor on hold for now. Completing her studies for her psychology degree was challenging, to say the least, for the Laurinburg resident.
Wilson is expecting to welcome little Jaxson the week of Christmas.
In his closing remarks, Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings told the graduates not to let anyone stand in the way of their dreams. He shared the story of Pembroke native Sheila Cummings who aspired to be an Air Force fighter pilot but was told by a recruiter that she would make a great nurse. Cummings began her educational career at UNCP before completing an aerospace engineering degree program at the University of Maryland at College Park.
In 2009, she formed her own company–Cummings Aerospace–with locations in Alabama and Florida. The company partners with the likes of Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and other major, multibillion-dollar federal defense contractors.
“She was told to be a nurse and that she couldn’t fly a jet for the Air Force. So, she turned that rejection into a company that designs jets, for the Air Force,” Chancellor Cummings said.
Cummings left the graduates with a simple, yet powerful message: Hard work, works.
“Rejection will come. You will face disappointment, but you’ve got to have fire in the belly. You must be willing to persistently pursue and work for what you want. Set your goal, find your passion, and persistently pursue it.”