Commencement is a time to celebrate and to consider “paying it forward,” UNC Pembroke Chancellor Kyle R. Carter noted in his charge to the 557 graduates at two weekend commencements.
Seventy-two graduate degrees were conferred on Friday evening and 485 undergraduate degrees on Saturday morning. Celebrations were in order as commencement speaker Newy Scruggs said, “This is one of the top 10 days of your lives.” In his speech, Scruggs advised graduates to “run your own race.”
Because commencements are also beginnings, celebrations were tempered with the advice that “come Monday the world awaits you,” said Dr. Robin Cummings, chair of UNCP’s Board of Trustees.
Some graduates, such as Socoria Dial, were ready for Monday. “My job is helping kids stay out of the criminal justice system,” said Dial, who majored in criminal justice and works at a pre-kindergarten program at nearby Prospect School. “It can be done.”
There were many outstanding graduates, and Chancellor Carter singled out two in his remarks. Kozma McLean, a 2009 UNCP graduate, received a Master of Science degree in service agency counseling on Friday. In her new career, she will try to make sure young people understand the value of an education, Chancellor Carter said.
“A high school dropout, Kozma McLean is here tonight to receive a master’s degree,” Dr. Carter said. “A grandmother, Kozma McLean is here tonight because she had a driving ambition to get a college degree.”
At Saturday’s commencement Chancellor Carter called out Rebecca Howell, who earned a Bachelor of Science degree in biology.
“As an undergraduate, Rebecca Howell was a RISE Fellow and a North Carolina Biotechnology Center Fellow,” the chancellor said. “She conducted research to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease in Dr. Ben Bahr’s biotechnology lab, and along the way she volunteered with autistic children, the Communities in Schools program and with group homes.”
Howell’s life experiences have guided how she gives back to the community. An orphan who was adopted at age four, Howell has launched a nonprofit organization to help other orphans, and her stint as a U.S. Marine was the impetus for founding UNCP’s chapter of the Student Veterans Association.
To celebrate her graduation, she will travel to California to be reunited with her biological family for the first time. Howell will continue her studies in UNCP’s Master of Public Administration program.
There were many more outstanding graduates, such as Keith Whitman, who became the university’s all-time home run king last spring while majoring in chemistry. On the Friday before graduation, he presented his research on light absorption for a chemistry class in “Instrumental Analysis.”
A grandmother and retired from two careers, Willie May Williams earned a degree in criminal justice. She plans to start a business and hopes to hire her son, Roc Williams Jr., who is a UNCP football player.
Earning a Bachelor of Science in education, Casey Smith is a first-generation college graduate. She will tutor elementary school children in an after-school program in Scotland County before beginning a teaching career.
“Turn around and give back,” Scruggs said. He is a 1994 UNCP graduate and member of the university’s Board of Trustees. “I’ve been a lot of places, and this university was always there with me,” he said.
Scruggs is the sports director and anchor for the NBC television affiliate in Dallas-Fort Worth. In 2011 he followed Texas teams to the World Series in baseball and the championship of the National Basketball Association and covered the Super Bowl in Dallas.
“I’m living a dream, and they pay me to do it,” he said. “Sometimes, I look up and realize I’m a long way from Jacobs (Residence) Hall in Pembroke, N.C.”
Scruggs, who has established two endowed scholarships for students at UNCP, thanked the university for the “hands-on” education he received in the Department of Mass Communication.
He recalled a story of boxing great Joe Frazier who would hold up two fists and say, “‘Everything I got, I got from these.’ I am proud to say, everything I got, I got right here at this university,” he said. “It’s been a joy to give back every year. Thank you so much for allowing me to come back.”
This weekend, graduates said, is time to celebrate. Whitman, who is from Elkin, said he would celebrate with his family Sunday at a Charlotte Panthers football game. Smith, who is from Laurel Hill, said her family would have an old-fashioned pig pickin’.
Renee Phile, an English teacher at North Moore High School, said completing work on a master’s degree would give her more time to volunteer. “I am the new advisor for our school’s Key Club,” she said. “I am also going to help other teachers who are in graduate programs because they helped me.”
Phile is a 2006 UNCP graduate, and Jessica Mellet, a 2008 UNCP graduate, also worked in the university’s admissions office. She earned a master’s degree in school counseling while working at Pine Forest High School in Cumberland County.
“I have a loan to pay back,” Mellet laughed. “Seriously, I am going to promote higher education and life-long learning every chance I get in my new career.”
“Paying it forward,” Chancellor Carter said, enables “the power of acts of kindness. I encourage each of you to consider a life of public service. You have the power to make a difference.”
As the graduates celebrated over the weekend, they had a great deal to think about and a diploma on the wall for the future.