Western Carolina University held commencement exercises Friday and Saturday, May 10-11, at Ramsey Regional Activity Center to recognize the academic accomplishments of the students who make up the university’s record-breaking spring class.
Commencement for WCU’s Graduate School was held at 7 p.m. May 10. Commencement for the undergraduate colleges of Arts and Sciences, Education and Allied Professions, and Fine and Performing Arts was held at 10 a.m. May 11, and that event was followed the same day by a 3:30 p.m. ceremony for undergraduate students from the College of Business, College of Health and Human Sciences, and Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology.
After all academic records are finalized, WCU’s spring class, including both undergraduate and graduate students, is expected to total about 1,365 students, the largest class in university history. Some 1,200 students participated in the commencement exercises.
All three events included a period of silence in memory and honor of Angi Brenton, WCU’s provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs who passed away Wednesday, May 8, after a three-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Brenton joined the WCU community last August from her previous position as a dean at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher told the audiences that Brenton faced her illness “with remarkable grace and courage.”
“In just a little over nine months, Angi found her way into the hearts of our Western Carolina University family and led us in transformative change,” Belcher said. “We will miss her tremendously, even while we pursue the vision she has led in shaping.”
During the Friday night Graduate School commencement, a WCU faculty member who has been recognized as one of the University of North Carolina system’s top teachers delivered the primary address. Chris Cooper, associate professor and head of WCU’s Department of Political Science and Public Affairs, spoke about the success of public higher education in North Carolina.
Cooper told the Ramsey Center audience that in his work as a political scientist he has found that people, in general, distrust and hate government. On a national level, only a quarter of the citizens say they trust government, he said. “In North Carolina, it’s not much better. Democrats hate government. Republicans hate government. People who own cats hate government. People who hate the people who own cats hate government,” he said.
“But, despite this near universal hatred of government, there are still some things government does well – and public education is one of them,” Cooper said.
North Carolina has had three different constitutions since 1776 and each has promoted and encouraged public higher education, he said. “Why were (state leaders) so committed to the cause of education?” Cooper said. “Did they just want you to make more money and get a good job? Partially, yes. If you’re making money and are gainfully employed, the state is betting that you will contribute more to the economy. But, at least according to your state constitution, you’re also more likely to be a better citizen and to live a happier life. Public education is a rare example of something that provides both private benefits to you and public benefits to the state as a whole.”
Cooper told the graduating students that public institutions of higher education in North Carolina can charge students much less in tuition because the state contributes more than $11,000 per year toward each student’s education. “This means that even if you paid full freight for your tuition, the state government put in more money toward your tuition that you did,” he said.
Cooper congratulated the graduating students on their decisions to pursue their graduate degrees at a public university and urged them to use their degrees to be financially stable, prosperous and live a life that, as the state constitution says, benefits “the happiness of mankind” and “supports good government.”
“Most importantly, however, you owe it to the folks who will walk across this stage in the future that they will have the same support from the state that has allowed you to be here today,” he said. “Remember that among your goals, along with money and prestige and security and happiness and whatever else, should rest an obligation to the welfare of the whole North Carolina community that has taken a part in lifting you up.”
Cooper recently was named a recipient of the UNC system’s highest teaching honor, the Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching. One award is given annually to a faculty member on each UNC campus to recognize superior teaching. He was presented the award during the Saturday morning undergraduate commencement by Board of Governors member and former WCU trustee W. Louis Bissette Jr. of Asheville.
Bissette also delivered greetings and congratulations to the graduating students at the two Saturday ceremonies on behalf of the Board of Governors and the UNC Office of the President. Handling that duty for the Friday night Graduate School commencement was Board of Governors member Phillip D. Walker of Hickory, a WCU alumnus and former chair of the university’s Board of Trustees.
Belcher delivered the chancellor’s charge at all three ceremonies. During the Saturday morning undergraduate commencement, he told the graduating students that receiving their diplomas represents a moment for them to celebrate, but that moment also belongs to everyone who supported their educational endeavors, including their families and friends and WCU faculty and staff.
“I don’t know where your next chapter is going to take you,” Belcher said. “Some of you have jobs waiting for you and some of you are still searching for that initial position. Some of you have your life trajectories all mapped out while others of you are less certain of future paths. But hear me: 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.
“As you look toward your future, I charge you to hold tight to your grounding at Western Carolina University and the values for which it stands – to remain firm in your commitment to excellence and high standards and to reject mediocrity and ‘good enough.’
“You are a part of Western Carolina University, and Western Carolina University is a part of you,” Belcher said. “Remember your grounding here in this remarkable slice of heaven we call Cullowhee.”
All three ceremonies included special recognition of members of the graduating class who are active duty members of the military, veterans, or members of the National Guard and Reserves. Those students were distinguished by the red, white and blue honor cords they wore with their caps and gowns.
Five University Scholars, students who completed all their undergraduates studies at WCU with perfect 4.0 grade-point averages, were honored Saturday during the ceremonies for their respective colleges. They are Tess C. Branon, a double-major in chemistry and biology from Apex; Kalli Lyn Devecki, a biology major from Murphy; Nathaniel L. Huff, an electrical engineering major from Mars Hill; James Conner Orr, an accounting major from Atlanta; and Tyler Ryan McKinnish, a biology major from Canton.
Another graduating student who was recognized at the Saturday morning undergraduate commencement is Mary Elizabeth Coulter, a psychology major from Canton. She is the granddaughter of the late Myron L. “Barney” Coulter, ninth chancellor of the university.
During the Saturday afternoon ceremony, Belcher paid special tribute to Dianne G. Lynch, chief of staff in the Office of the Chancellor who has listed among her duties the task of overseeing WCU commencement ceremonies. Lynch is retiring this summer after 10 years as chief of staff and a total of 18 years as a member of the university’s administrative staff. “She has, simply put, been one of the key go-to people in leadership at Western Carolina University for many years,” Belcher said. “I can tell you she has been my right-hand woman in leadership – a real extension of me in my first two years as chancellor. She has a keen vision of what this university can be.”
A complete list of the new WCU graduates will be announced following the posting of grades from final examinations.