WCU honors graduating class of 710 students at fall commencement ceremony

The excitement of commencement day shows on the face of graduating student John Allen Bennett of Cullowhee.

The excitement of commencement day shows on the face of graduating student John Allen Bennett of Cullowhee.

Western Carolina University paid tribute to a graduating class of approximately 710 students on Saturday, Dec. 13, as the university held fall commencement exercises at the Ramsey Regional Activity Center.

In his charge to the graduating students, WCU Chancellor John W. Bardo urged them to reflect on their experiences at the university, and to remember “that special person who made you feel that this would be an OK place to be, or that faculty member who helped you through a rough time.”

“I want to express my heartfelt congratulations on behalf of the faculty, administration, staff and friends of this university for the great work you’ve done to get here today,” Bardo said. “Those of us who remain in Cullowhee will follow you with pride as you move through your careers, develop your families and help your communities. We look forward to seeing you back on campus, and we hope you will remain a part of the Catamount family.”

The primary commencement address was delivered by Laura Diane Litchfield, a WCU senior from Franklin who is enrolled in the university’s Honors College. Litchfield is a cancer survivor whose goal is to become a pediatric oncologist and work with child cancer patients. She was introduced by Honors College Dean Brian Railsback as “the bravest student I have ever met.”

Litchfield spoke about “courage” as she addressed the graduating students, and their families and friends. She congratulated the students on the courage it has taken “to make it through those impossible exams, to overcome those tough classes, and to succeed where others have failed.”

“Our trials, tragedies and triumphs have made us braver individuals,” Litchfield said. “However, without others standing beside us, our courage would fade when faced with the fear of the unknown. It is through family, friends, peers, and their companionship that courage is reinforced.”

Litchfield related to the commencement audience one of her “life stories.” When she was 12 years old, she had just been diagnosed with cancer at a physician’s office when a telephone call came in informing her and her mother that the family’s house was on fire. “As we arrived home, we saw our house engulfed in flames. My father had tried to get my dog out of the fire, but he couldn’t. The flames had taken over and we lost everything,” she said.

Not long after that experience, Litchfield began a 10-year journey that has included several experimental chemotherapy treatments, radiation treatment and six surgeries. She currently is undergoing experimental proton therapy treatment in Boston.

Litchfield said that early on in her experience with cancer, she decided she wanted to become a pediatric oncologist so she could “help other kids haunted by cancer.”

“There were times when I felt as if I would never be able to achieve this goal,” she said. “This day, as I continue to fight through new experimental treatments, the thought of not yet achieving my dream gives me the stamina that I need to continue. My challenge to each of you, as you take the next step of your own journey, is to never quit searching, never quit trying, and never lose courage when things don’t go your way. Relish the great memories past, love the present, and make your future.”

Litchfield, the daughter of Delwin and Caroline Litchfield of Franklin, expects to receive her bachelor’s degree at WCU in August 2009. She already has been awarded scholarships to attend medical school by the American Cancer Society and the Tim and Tom Gullikson Foundation.