UNC Pembroke graduates urged to ‘change the world’

Hundreds of graduates, family and friends participated in UNC Pembroke's drive-thru fall commencement on Saturday, November 21.

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“Never underestimate your potential to make a significant contribution to society. Dream big dreams and go change the world.”

Former Wingate University President Jerry McGee shared those words of wisdom and encouragement to 686 graduates as part of UNC Pembroke’s drive-thru fall commencement on Saturday.

And change the world is just what the graduates plan to do with the experiences they had at UNC Pembroke—experiences they say shaped who they are and will become.

A convoy of decorated vehicles, including a few stretch limos and buses, lined Prospect Road, parading toward a stage in the roundabout in front of Givens Performing Arts Center. Graduates exited their cars and were greeted on stage by Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings and other platform guests. A husband and wife pair along with two sets of twins were among hundreds of graduates whose proud parents, grandparents, siblings and friends shouted, honked horns, displayed signs–some even rang cow bells–and snapped cherished photos in celebration of this milestone accomplishment.

Ronald Crawford’s wife and their children cheered from their car as the Wake Forest native posed with his hard-earned diploma. Although commencement lacked the usual pomp and circumstance, Crawford said he was grateful for the opportunity to hear his named called while crossing the stage.

“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world!” he said.

To Crawford, his degree was the missing puzzle pieces to help him unlock his potential.

“While earning my business degree, I have developed a deeper understanding of the science of management and leadership,” said Crawford, a training specialist with a cellular company. “I have run a couple of businesses and I have experience in training and sales, but I didn’t have the technical background. With this degree, I was able to fill a lot of those gaps. The information I gained from my UNCP experience is invaluable.”

In high school, Dafne Lopez-Baez was not considering going to college. Her attitude changed after a visit from a UNCP admissions recruiter.

“Her presentation gave me a new perspective. I fell in love with the campus on my first visit,” she said.

Determined not to let personal circumstances derail her academic success early on, she persevered and with support from the College Opportunities Program seeing her grades improve significantly. On Saturday, Lopez-Baez earned a degree in exercise sports science and plans to enroll in graduate school. Her goal is to become a sports psychologist advising college athletes.

“I want to help athletes deal with all the pressures surrounding being a student- athlete. I played sports growing up and I’ve always been big on helping others, so I wanted to find a career that combined my passion for both.” 

Like many graduates on Saturday, Dr. McGee–who served as the keynote speaker for the undergraduate ceremony–was the first in his family to attend college. Raised by a family of farmers and textile mill workers in Rockingham, N.C., he shared the story of how his grandfather, who had a third-grade education, invested in his success. He went on to earn three degrees and became the longest-tenured university president in North Carolina.

After seeing his diploma, his granddad wanted to know who the signatures belonged to. McGee explained the role of the trustee chair, academic dean and president.

“At this point neither of us could possibly have known that in the years ahead my signature would be on thousands of university diplomas,” McGee said in a recorded speech. “My granddad was invested in my success, just as your family and encouragers have invested in you. I encourage you to honor your investors by dreaming big dreams.

“Associate yourself with honorable people,” he said. “Do important work and have the time and resources to care for those who love you. Honor those who have invested in you by becoming an investor in others.”

Investing in and serving others is exactly what many of the university’s newest alumni intend to do both personally and professionally.

Daniel Gunnerson, an active duty veteran stationed at Fort Bragg, graduated magna cum laude with a criminal justice degree and commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. His next stop is Basic Officer Leader Course, a 16-week training assignment.

“I loved my time here. I enjoyed the interaction with my professors. That was helpful for me. There are great professors at UNCP who have a wealth of knowledge of the course materials and tons of experience. I was able to build strong relationships that will follow me after I leave.”

For two and a half years, Harley Locklear commuted to UNCP from his home in Raleigh while pursuing a master’s degree in professional school counseling.

“It was taxing, driving three days a week from Pembroke to the Triangle-area,” he said. “I am tired and stretched thin, but it’s been worthwhile. I’m so excited to be graduating. I’m ready to tackle the world!”

Originally from Pembroke, Locklear works as a counselor at Person High School. He said he benefited from the hands-on experience he received in the counseling program.

“It has prepared me for real-life scenarios. My classmates were super engaged. Our conversations were thought-provoking, and I was able to juxtapose my experience in the field with theirs.” 

He has already begun researching counseling doctorate programs with the goal of advancing in an administrator role or work with the state Department of Public Instruction.

“I would love to eventually come back and serve my community in some capacity.”

One of the many nontraditional students, Richard Kurr, decided to pursue a master’s degree in clinical mental health after serving 16 years in the U.S. Army.

“UNC Pembroke has been incredible as far as the support I received in helping me meet my needs. The first person I communicate with as part of the interview process was Dr. (Ki) Chae, who was the director at the time. He’s an amazing human being. He sold me on the program. He’s the reason why I chose UNCP.

“All my professors were down to earth. They treat students with dignity and are very personable.”

Kurr, of Fayetteville, plans to use his degree to serve the military population.

“I have my own story with recovery and there’s a strong need for military-experienced counselors to help veterans coping with PTSD or who are struggling with addiction. I want to fill in some of those gaps in the military community,” said Kurr, who also earned a graduate certificate in addictions counseling.

Dr. Michele Fazio, a professor of English and the 2020 recipient of the UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching, served as keynote for The Graduate School ceremony. As they begin the next chapter of their lives, Fazio told the graduates not be afraid to speak up for what they believe in, especially during troubled times.

“It would be far too easy to return to the way things used to be and forget what this year has brought to light, but doing so would ignore and erase lived experience. Your challenge, then, no matter your career or life choices, is to foster empathy, acting compassionately and intentionally to effect positive social change for yourself and in the lives of others.”

Changing the world was a theme among graduates armed with their degree and passion. Red Springs native Brooke Huggins aspires to change the world for the better in the health care field as a physician’s assistant. Hannah Mariani, of Pembroke, plans to make an impact in the field of research.

In his virtual remarks, Chancellor Cummings reminded graduates they

have control of two things in life: your attitude and your effort. Always work harder than the people around you and success will follow, he said.

“And when you find success, look for significance. Success is adding value to your life. Significance is adding value to others.”

Hurricanes and COVID-like disruptions–things in life you can’t control–will come, but he urged graduates to stay resilient.

“You’ve proven you can adapt to change and get through unanticipated life experiences. You’ve proven you have what it takes to stay focused, to reach your goals, to be successful. And don’t just aim for success in life. Aim higher, aim for significance. Success can be forgotten, but those who are significant leave a lasting impact in life.”