The Western Carolina University community brought the fall semester to a close Saturday (Dec. 15) as commencement exercises were held in Ramsey Regional Activity Center to honor the university’s newest graduating class and a group of Catamount alumni who were awarded degrees in August.
WCU’s fall class includes about 695 students who recently have been completing academic requirements to receive their degrees. A group of graduates who completed degree requirements during summer school and who already have been conferred degrees also joined in the ceremony.
Chancellor David O. Belcher presided over commencement and delivered the charge to the fall semester degree candidates and summer graduates. WCU senior Alecia Lorann Page, a Shelby native who serves as president of WCU’s Student Government Association, delivered the primary commencement address.
The ceremony also included the presentation of an honorary doctorate of humane letters degree to retired WCU faculty member Jane B. Schulz and posthumously to her late son, William Robert “Billy” Schulz, for their efforts in improving educational, vocational and social opportunities for individuals with Down syndrome and other special needs.
Reading from the honorary doctorate citation, Belcher said Jane Schulz was a wife and mother of three children, with a fourth child on the way, when a doctor diagnosed her son, Billy, who was born in 1956, with Down syndrome. “He advised you to take Billy home and love him,” Belcher read. “Love him you did, so deeply and so fiercely that you became a champion for him and for the quality of life he could have. Together, you became pioneers in special education and champions for all who have intellectual disabilities.”
Jane Schulz’s work as a kindergarten teacher opened up an opportunity for Billy Schulz to attend a kindergarten class, and she was inspired by that experience to co-author a landmark book in the special education field, “Mainstreaming Exceptional Students: A Guide for Classroom Teachers,” in 1979. Jane Schulz earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at Auburn University and went on to teach in special education at WCU for more than 20 years. She also developed a statewide program to train teachers to better work with special-needs students and was instrumental in organizing the Special Olympics program in Jackson County, an effort that spilled over into surrounding counties in Western North Carolina.
“Along the way, Billy continued to show you that he and others with Down syndrome were capable of far more than many realized,” Belcher read from the citation. “He was a beloved staff member at WCU’s Hunter Library for 21 years. He also worked at a nursing home where he helped care for his father and at a grocery store that earlier this year awarded him a pin for 10 years of service. As you delivered hundreds of presentations and workshops on improving special education, Billy overcame stage fright to join you on many occasions. In his own words, he helped you share the story of his life and dispel negative stereotypes of people who have disabilities, and encouraged all to seek their full promise. Together, you motivated and inspired countless others.”
Billy Schulz died in September of this year after a period of declining health. In accepting the honorary doctorate for herself and on behalf of her son, Jane Schulz said he “exemplified that friendship has no boundaries, that each of us is important, and that all of us have contributions to make in our community.
“I never dreamed of receiving such an honor, and wish Billy could be here. He really deserved this more than I do,” she said.
“Billy made friends with everyone. ‘Hi, I’m Billy. You got a dog?’ made it difficult for anyone to ignore him,” Jane Schulz told the Ramsey Center audience. “We have heard from people we don’t even know that, frequently, they would go in the store where Billy worked and be uplifted by his greeting and cheerfulness. We all miss him.”
“Billy’s message, told in his unique language, repeated that every day was a good day, that we all have work to do, that we have friends everywhere, that it’s nice to laugh and relax, that you love your family, and that you go to church on Sunday because people are counting on you,” she said. “Even though he dealt with anxiety, frustration and health issues, just like the rest of us, Billy ended each presentation with ‘I got a good life.’
“Last August, Chancellor Belcher called to tell us about the honor Western Carolina University intended to bestow upon us,” she said. “During that time, Billy was sick with the beginning of the illness that led to his death. I sat on his bed and explained the honor to him. He said, ‘Then who I be, Mom – Dr. Billy?’ And so, speaking for my amazing family, our devoted friends, for myself, and especially for Dr. Billy, thank you.”
In her commencement address, SGA President Page, who is majoring in English with a concentration in literature, related to the audience her experiences of growing up “not at the poverty line, but below it. I didn’t need to turn on the TV to check the weather – just walked into the living room and peeked through the collapsing roof to see what kind of day it was,” she said.
Page said she came to WCU as a student with an “unquenchable thirst for success. I climbed the ladder, got into the Honors College, joined the Student Government Association, and sacrificed many good times for the sake of maintaining a polished GPA,” she said. “As the years went by, I took on more and more – increasing my class load, volunteering for committees, joining clubs. By my senior year, I found myself elected student body president of Western and vice president of the (University of North Carolina system) Association of Student Governments.
“I did all the right things, but took all the wrong approaches, constantly looking for the payoff, for the day when my hard work would lead to security, stability – but I fear that if you’ve ever truly experienced the shame of privation, no success will ever be enough to make you safe,” she said.
“So, if you’re sitting here today and you are afraid, join the club,” Page told the new graduates and graduating students. “I can’t give you the solution – can’t guarantee that because you have a degree you’ll never do without. But I can tell you this: There is only one thing in this world that you can pay for that cannot be taken, and that is your education. This degree isn’t a meaningless piece of paper or something to check off of your to-do list. This degree says, ‘I took the time and I invested in myself. I am capable, competent and credible. I am worth hiring.’”
Page said the mistake she made as she “climbed the ladder” as a WCU student was that she was not taking the time to enjoy the successes of the moment. “I wanted the degree that said I went to school and the job that came after,” she said. “So, if I could give you any advice, it would be this: Don’t live your life waiting to get to happiness. Don’t tell yourself you have time to get a good life later. Celebrate this victory – this accomplishment that two-thirds of North Carolinians haven’t been able to achieve. Regardless of where you started, what hardships you’ve endured in the past, or what difficulties you may face in the future, recognize that this degree means you can overcome, ascend. Congratulations, fellow Catamounts, and I wish you happiness as you seek to reap the benefits of your wise investment.”
In his charge, Belcher recognized the graduating students and new alumni for the hard work that had led them to celebrate their educational accomplishments at commencement. He commended their achievements and abilities to adapt to changing circumstances, think critically, make thoughtful decisions, solve problems and embrace the responsibility of making a difference and giving back.
Belcher urged the graduating students to keep striving for excellence, to continue learning, and to value their connections with other people. He encouraged them to live the institution’s commitment to making the world a better place and engage in service opportunities.
The chancellor also reminded commencement participants to thank family, friends and others who supported them in their educational pursuits and to take time to reflect as a new chapter begins in their lives.
“Some of you have your life trajectories all mapped out, while others of you are less certain of future paths,” said Belcher. “The real world into which you are heading is characterized by all sorts of challenges and uncertainties, but you are ready. You have the minds and the skills to chart your own course, and you will do so. You are ready for the next chapter.”
A complete list of WCU’s new graduates will be announced following the posting of grades from final examinations.