Recognition of undergraduate students recording perfect 4.0 GPAs for their college careers and an address by one of the University of North Carolina system’s top teachers were among the highlights from a trio of spring commencement ceremonies held at Western Carolina University.
Commencement for graduate students was held the evening of Friday, May 6. The following day included a morning ceremony for undergraduate students from the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Education and Allied Professions, and Fine and Performing Arts, and an afternoon commencement for undergraduates from the College of Business, College of Health and Human Sciences, and Kimmel School of Construction Management and Technology. WCU Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar presided over all three events in the absence of Chancellor David O. Belcher, who underwent surgery Wednesday, May 4.
A total of about 1,350 graduating students donned caps and gowns for the three events. They are part of a spring graduating class that is expected to include about 1,465 graduates, which would be WCU’s fifth straight record spring graduating class and about 50 more graduates than were in last year’s then-record spring class. The exact size of this year’s class won’t be known until all academic records are finalized.
Six University Scholars – undergraduate students who enrolled at WCU as freshmen and completed all their studies with perfect 4.0 grade-point averages – were honored during the Saturday ceremonies. Five of the six students hail from Western North Carolina. Those students, with their majors and hometowns listed, are Emily Lauren Jaynes, criminal justice, Morganton; Ashlee Renee Jones, mathematics, Waynesville; Erica L. Katz, interior design, Canton; Erin Ann Mullens, nutrition and dietetics, Brevard; Lauren Ashley Penland, accounting, Franklin; and Kaitlyn E. Speer, nursing, Youngsville.
The primary address during the Friday night Graduate School commencement was delivered by Carmen Huffman. The WCU associate professor of chemistry recently was named a recipient of the UNC system’s highest teaching honor, the Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Huffman spoke to the students receiving master’s and doctoral degrees about the “butterfly effect,” a term she said was coined by meteorologist Edward Lorenz in the 1960s. “He discovered that the slightest differences in his initial conditions caused significant differences in the weather outcome,” Huffman said. “The overall idea of the butterfly effect is that a small, seemingly insignificant action can have a large effect on a future outcome.
“The take-home message for today is this – don’t underestimate the importance of your own behavior. It doesn’t matter what your WCU degree is in. It doesn’t matter if you were in the top of your class or if you struggled every step of the way and are relieved that you made it. What matters is that you are here, you’ve learned a lot and you have a lot to offer.”
Huffman said her challenge for the graduating students – their final homework assignment from a WCU professor – is to be a butterfly. “Make an impact in your world,” she said. “Take actions that will nudge the future in the right direction. The scale of your acts doesn’t matter, just the significance. Big or small, it all matters. It all makes a difference. You can make a difference, and I hope that you will.”
The Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching is given annually to a faculty member on each UNC campus to recognize superior teaching. Huffman was presented her award during the Saturday morning undergraduate commencement by Board of Governors member Roger Aiken of Alexander. Aiken also delivered greetings and congratulations to the graduating students at the three ceremonies on behalf of the Board of Governors and the UNC Office of the President.
All three events 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 red, white and blue honor cords they wore with their caps and gowns.
The Saturday afternoon commencement included special recognition for Terry L. Welch, assistant to the chancellor and assistant secretary to the WCU Board of Trustees, who is retiring after 34 years of service to the university. Welch was honored with a special rendition of the WCU athletics fight song played on the Ramsey Center public address system.
Morrison-Shetlar delivered the charge to the graduating students at the three ceremonies. She told them and the respective audiences that Belcher “really wishes he could be here to celebrate this special day with you.”
Morrison-Shetlar said she suspected that the chancellor was going against doctor’s orders and watching the live web stream of the events on his phone, and she led all those in the Ramsey Center at each event in a chant of “Get well soon, Chancellor Belcher!”
Like Huffman, Morrison-Shetlar spoke about the graduating students’ capacity for making a difference. WCU experiences such as research, service-learning and internships “have opened your mind to new and different ideas and approaches to issues that face you, our community and our world,” she told the undergraduates on Saturday.
“Your education, whether in or out of the classroom, has prepared you well to make a difference in the world,” she said. “Your education here has helped you to engage in dialogues about differences and similarities, to listen and respect the ideas of others, and while you still have your beliefs, you are more open to seeing the world through the eyes of others.
“For many of you, it has been a challenging time – family, health and work have sometimes gotten in the way of focusing on learning,” she said. “But you are here today because you have overcome these challenges and have learned from them. Your time and your experiences at WCU have prepared you for your future – and what a great future that will be.”
A complete list of the new WCU graduates will be announced following the posting of grades from final examinations.