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UNCP awards 515 degrees during winter commencement

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, delivers the keynote speech during UNCP’s winter commencement on Saturday.

The chair where Troy Love has been receiving dialysis treatments for the past three years was empty Saturday.

Love adjusted his schedule for good reason.

He was among the sea of 515 graduates during the 2017 Winter Commencement at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

“I am excited,” said Love of Red Springs. “I would have never thought I would ever get to this point, knowing that a couple of years ago I could have been dead.”

Love, 25, was diagnosed in 2014 with Stage-5 kidney failure. At that time, his kidneys were functioning at 2 percent. Despite the long hours of dialysis treatments three days a week, Love transferred to UNCP from Robeson Community College and pursued a degree in social work.

Love plans to start a mentoring program for young men.

Thousands packed the English E. Jones Center to celebrate with loved ones as Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings conferred 446 undergraduate degrees. Sixty nine graduate degrees were awarded during a separate ceremony Friday night.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, gave the commencement address on Saturday. UNCP English professor Dr. Richard Vela was the keynote speaker during the graduate ceremony.

Cohen, who was appointed secretary in January, shared personal stories of how she contemplated giving up on her dream to become a medical doctor as she was undergoing her training.

“I had reached my breaking point,” she said. “I vowed that I was not setting my alarm to go to work in the morning. But then I thought of my mother and how she wasn’t given the opportunity to go to medical school.”

Cohen noted her belief in herself and inspiration of her mother motivted her success.

On Friday, Vela encouraged students to consider how their education has prepared them for the world ahead and how their lives will continue to change.

“From now on, everything is application. Change is inevitable. You will never stop learning and, therefore, I hope never stop becoming better off,” said Vela.

Vela, who has been a professor at UNCP since 1971, also reminded students they will forever be a part of this institution regardless of the change that lies ahead.

Dakota Leviner, of McColl, S.C., earned her bachelor’s degree in biology and plans to continue studying toward a second degree in physical therapy.

“It was a great experience,” said Leviner, who played two years on the softball team. “I loved the small classes and the interaction with my professors.

Daria Bannerman, of Maple Hill, beat the odds to become a two-time graduate of UNCP, earning a master’s degree in social work.

Bannerman was born blind and premature, weighing one pound, seven ounces.

“She is our miracle child,” said her mother Pamela Bannerman.

Daria said she was thankful to have a great support system throughout her nine years at UNCP.

“After all my time, I feel like Pembroke is my home.”

Bannerman plans to land a job with a state agency helping others with disabilities.

“I want to link them with the resources they need so they can live the lives they want. 

In a somber moment during the ceremony, Vernexia Love accepted a degree awarded in memoriam for her mother Joann Baldwin of Parkton. Baldwin was three classes shy of earning her degree in sociology when she passed away on December 6, 2016. She owned Ms. Jo’s Childcare for more than 22 years.

Chancellor Cummings left the graduates with a final message – to pursue a life of success, but also, a life of significance.

“Find your passion. It is our desire that your passion has meaning and purpose and brings light into the world and to those around you.”