UNCP awards 1,013 degrees at Spring Commencement

Spring Commencement
More than 1,000 degrees were awarded at Spring Commencement at UNC Pembroke on May 3-4

Alexius Fields refused to let a stroke in high school stand in her way of achieving her dream of becoming a college graduate.


The Laurinburg native had to learn to walk and talk again. The stroke caused left-sided weakness in her body. Today, she walks with a limp and doesn’t have full function of her left hand and arm. She wrote every paper while studying at UNC Pembroke with one hand. A remarkable feat considering this weekend at Spring Commencement, she earned her second degree––a Master of Arts in Teaching.


“(This degree) is a testament to my strong will never to give up,” Fields said. “In life, you are going to get knocked down and I’ve been knocked down, but I didn’t stay down long. I finished strong and this commencement is proof of that.”


Fields was among 1,013 graduates awarded degrees at the undergraduate and graduate outdoor ceremonies. Fields completed her studies while doubling as a fourth-grade teacher in her hometown. And like Fields and Asheboro native Juan Carrillo and dozens more, they were the first in their families to graduate.


“It feels surreal, considering my parents’ background,” said Carrillo, whose family is from Mexico. “This stepping stone will allow me to do so much more.”


He plans to gain experience as a lab technician before applying to pharmacy school. 


Natascha Tilson of Hope Mills and her daughter, Nyra, shared a milestone moment this weekend. Natascha earned her MSW, while Nyra graduated with a sociology degree and has accepted a college advisor position with UNC Chapel Hill.

“I never thought that I would be getting my master’s degree, but to be able to get my degree and graduate at the same time with my daughter––it’s special,” Natascha Tilson said.


In his remarks, commencement speaker and Gallup CEO Jon Clifton urged the graduates to find out what makes them the best in the world and relentlessly pursue it ‘because the world needs you now more than ever.’


Clifton said our leaders of tomorrow also need to be active listeners and find strength in adversity. 


“Instead of trying to fix what’s wrong with someone, we need to help bring out the best in each other,” said Clifton, who was presented with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. “Find out what makes them amazing.”


Kiki Cohen and Vanja Pruzlj, who earned degrees in sociology and business, respectively, will book international flights to pursue their dreams. Cohen, who graduated summa cum laude, is moving to Prague, Czech Republic, to become an English teacher. Pruzlj, an All-American volleyball player, recently signed to play professionally in Finland. 


Though Jayden Worriax grew up in Wilmington, she said Pembroke has felt like home for the last four years.   


“I’ve grown a lot and met a lot of people,” said Worriax, who plans to further her education in the kinesiology graduate program at East Carolina University in the fall.  “I’m going to miss all the smiling faces every day on campus, laughing with all my friends in the UC and I’m going to miss the sporting events.”


Austin Ackerley, who earned a degree in psychology, has applied to the behavioral neuroscience programs at UNC Greensboro, UNC Chapel Hill and Duke.

“The faculty in the psychology department are truly dedicated to students. UNCP has allowed me to get involved with research in the lab with Dr. (Ben) Bahr, which has given me the confidence to apply to graduate school. I just can’t say enough about my time at UNCP,” said Ackerley, a first-generation college graduate from St. Pauls. 

Isabella Locklear came to UNCP with dreams of becoming a physician but discovered a passion for mental health. Her next stop is the University of Rhode Island, where she was accepted into the clinical psychology doctoral program. Her focus will be Indigenous populations.


“I loved all my professors and I’m so thankful for my mentors Dr. (Shilpa) Regan and Dr. (Rachel) Morrison––without them, it would’ve been much tougher for me to get into a PhD program,” said Locklear, a Pembroke native.


Brian Kruse joined six other cadets who crossed the stage to raucous applause when it was announced they would be commissioned as second lieutenants into the Army. After serving 11 years of active duty, Kruse will continue training to become a military intelligence officer.  


“My experience at UNC Pembroke has been amazing,” he said. “It was military friendly. I’ve been a student at three different colleges while in the military, and I would rank my experience at Pembroke above all. I’m glad I chose to come here.”


New alumnus Alaqua Jacobs, a Raleigh native, credits his UNCP experience with helping him strengthen his interpersonal skills. 

“One of the big things I learned is that being involved with service projects helped me build my leadership skills,” Jacobs said. “Seeing other leaders in action and working with teams has been important. The campus community here is very tight-knit, and I’ve been able to build my community of friends and mentors. Faculty and students work collectively to serve as leaders.”

Jacobs, who has an entrepreneurial spirit and wants to own a third-party plant store, plans to work with a local farm to gain more experience with plants and horticulture.

Christopher Hebel is a 48-year-old Iraq War veteran who struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a years-long opiate addiction before embarking on his academic journey. An overdose that nearly killed him four years ago proved to be the turning point in his life. 


“I was in rough shape,” Hebel said. “It wasn’t until I became sober that I was able to prove what I was capable of. And if it weren’t for Dr. (Jeff) Bolles for believing in me, I wouldn’t be where I am today. He put his neck out there for me, which is why I made it here,” Hebel said after earning his MSW with honors.