CULLOWHEE – Members of Western Carolina University’s newest graduating class were encouraged to use their voices to keep alive the freedoms guaranteed through the First Amendment as the university held commencement exercises for approximately 500 students Saturday, Dec. 17.
In the primary commencement address, Western junior Maria Jeanette Segovia Sims of Sylva told members of the graduating class that they “stand a step ahead of many others” in the world because of the freedoms listed in the First Amendment of the Constitution.
“You have a tremendous advantage because you are able to use your voices, which gives each of you the opportunity to make a difference,” Sims said. “Your duty now is to prove that a spirit of purpose can give meaning to human energy and overcome any lack of material resources. Freedom, equal opportunity, hard work and human dignity are the values that have made and continue to make America great.”
Sims spoke from a unique perspective during the ceremony at Western’s Ramsey Regional Activity Center. Now an American citizen, Sims was born in Paraguay and spent the first nine years of her life under the dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner.
“Under his regime, personal opinions did not exist,” she said. “People who did not agree with him or his regime were kidnapped, tortured, exiled or murdered. The media was censored. Only that which helped his regime and his image was allowed to be published.”
Sims said her father took part in the overthrow of Gen. Stroessner on the night of Feb, 2, 1989, a “night that opened the door of hope and freedom for every Paraguayan citizen.”
“I congratulate your families and loved ones for their encouragement and support, which is why you are here today,” Sims told the degree candidates. “I also congratulate you for coming this far, and it is my wish that you will remember how lucky you are to have received from your forefathers something as valuable as the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment. Use your voices at every opportunity to keep this legacy alive.”
Sims is a 1998 graduate of the International School of Tomorrow of Asuncion, Paraguay, and transferred to Western from Southwestern Community College. She has been listed on the dean’s list during each of her semesters at Western, and she serves as treasurer for La Voz Latina, the Latin cultural organization on campus.
A campuswide essay contest was held at Western this fall semester on the topic “America Without the First Amendment.” Sims’ essay was chosen from the numerous entries in that contest to be delivered as the primary address at the December commencement.
In his charge to the graduating seniors, Western Chancellor John W. Bardo said Western’s class of December 2005 is a special one that “really contributed to the life of this university.” In particular, the students thrived during a period of increasing academic standards at the university, and they witnessed the biggest period of new construction in Western’s history, he said.
“You’re being here today demonstrates that you have the ability, the will and the drive to succeed in anything you choose to do in life. I encourage you to take an active part in your university. Help Western to build on your legacy,” Bardo said.
Activities during Western’s fall commencement were scheduled to include presentations of honorary doctoral degrees to McDaniel “Dan” Robinson, a military veteran and former Western athlete, coach and teacher, and to Charles H. Taylor, who represents District 11 in the U.S. House of Representatives. Familial commitments prevented Robinson from attending the ceremony, and Taylor was unable to attend because of an unexpected weekend session of Congress. Both honorary doctorates will be presented at a future commencement.