Degrees conferred on 450 graduates at Western’s summer commencement

CULLOWHEE – Western Carolina University Chancellor John W. Bardo conferred degrees on approximately 450 students as the university held summer commencement exercises Friday, Aug. 1.

As she delivered the primary commencement address, Grace Allen, associate professor of finance at Western, described for the graduates and their families and friends how it took her “about six years and five states” after she earned her first degree to arrive at the career she loves – teaching.

Allen outlined for the crowd at the Ramsey Regional Activity Center several guidelines that she said have helped her in life.

“First, know yourself,” she said. “We all do not excel in everything. When you do something that you really enjoy and you are good at it, you will generally succeed.”

Allen said her journey into a teaching career “took many miles, a lot of patience and perseverance.” After earning a chemistry degree, she went to work as a chemist, but soon found “there was something missing.” So, she packed up her belongings and became a “ski bum” in Wyoming.

“I know that may sound irresponsible, but when I look back on it, it was probably the biggest thing I ever did to change my life,” she said. “I worked in a hotel and had my first exposure to business.”

After two years in Wyoming, Allen moved to Key West, Fla., to live on a treasure-hunting ship, and then she moved on to employment at a Vermont tennis club. During those experiences, “It gradually dawned on me that business excited me,” she said. Allen returned to school, and a few years later had earned a master’s degree in business administration.

Allen worked for a short time as a management consultant, but soon realized that she wanted to teach finance to college students. She went back to school a third time – this time to earn a doctoral degree in finance – and began her teaching career. “I hope this illustrates how some of us do not know what we want to do with our lives,” she said. “It took me about six years and five states to find out. I urge each of you to do whatever it takes to know yourself so you can truly be happy.”

Allen advised the graduates to obtain as much formal education as they can and to maintain a thirst for knowledge. “With knowledge, you can make your own decisions, cut your own path, and not need the status quo as a false crutch,” she said. She also told the graduates that they shouldn’t be afraid to take risks, and that they should give to others and live a life of humility. “There’s always someone else who knows more than you do. Be proud of your accomplishments without being arrogant,” she said.

Allen told the graduates that each one would need an anchor as they go through life. “The 21st century is going to make your dizzy. Your family can be an anchor. Your friends can be an anchor. Your spiritual beliefs can be an anchor,” she said.

“These are a few absolutes along the path of life – no AAA-sanctioned road map to success,” Allen said. “If my guidelines were [the only path], I would file for a patent and bestow a large endowment on this great university. You must work hard and take risks. If you do, you’ll discover yourself, find your purpose and be fulfilled.”

Earlier this year, Allen was recognized as one of The University of North Carolina system’s premier teachers when she was named one of 16 recipients of the UNC Board of Governors Awards for Excellence in Teaching.

Among the 450 graduates at Western’s commencement were eight students who are the first to receive degrees through the executive leadership option of Western’s master’s degree program in health sciences.

A collaborative effort involving the university and Mountain Area Health Education Center in Asheville, the program allows Western North Carolina’s health care leaders of the future to take classes taught by an adjunct faculty composed of the region’s current health care leaders, said Scott Higgins, professor of health sciences at Western and program director.

The advanced training was made possible through the hybrid nature of the program, which involves online classes, evening classes and teleconferencing to accommodate the students’ work schedules, Higgins said.