Western Carolina University senior Jimmy Harwell, who temporarily abandoned his goal of earning a college degree after he began to lose his eyesight, urged his fellow graduating students to remember that there is always a way to succeed, as the university held fall commencement Saturday, Dec. 16.
Assisted to the podium at Ramsey Regional Activity Center by his guide dog, Mr. G, Harwell delivered the primary commencement address to approximately 500 candidates for undergraduate and graduate degrees.
“One of the things I have learned at Western is there is a way, and we can make it,” said Harwell, a communication major from Gastonia.
“After two semesters here, I felt that something was just not right. My vision was getting fuzzy, and I felt like I needed glasses,” said Harwell. “I went for a regular eye exam and got the shock of my life. I was diagnosed with a rare gene disorder. I was going to lose my vision.”
He returned to Western, but did not ask for help although he could not see his books or tests clearly.
“I did poorly and struggled with my studies,” Harwell said. “When the spring semester was over, I told my family and myself ‘that was it.’ I was done with school.”
Harwell said a physician suggested he could probably learn to bag groceries near his home.
“I was as low as I could go – no direction, no job and, worst of all, no hope,” he said.
A meeting with a woman named Rene Abernathy, however, changed his life, and helped him discover his independence. He completed 26 days of intensive training at Guiding Eyes in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., and came home with Mr. G, a new friend and constant companion.
The pair returned to Western, and this time Harwell asked for help and sought the advice of Don Connelly, director of broadcasting and associate professor of communication.
“I told him his options in radio were wide open,” Connelly said a few days before the commencement ceremony. “Many visually impaired people have had careers in radio, and I know he really enjoyed his internship this summer at the Clear Channel group of stations in Charlotte.”
As part of the internship, Harwell worked alongside the producer for the nationally syndicated morning show “John Boy and Billy.”
“Jimmy can go anywhere and do anything he wants to,” Connelly said.
Harwell told the audience of graduating seniors and their families that he would miss the people at Western, but that he had plans for his future. He plans to seek a job in the radio industry in Charlotte.
“To that doctor in Charlotte who told me I could learn to bag groceries, listen carefully: My name is James L. Harwell. I have a degree from Western Carolina University, and I will go anywhere and do anything I set my mind to,” Harwell said.
Harwell was selected as the commencement speaker through an essay contest.
In congratulatory remarks to the graduating students, Chancellor John W. Bardo said he was proud of their achievements and reminded them that Western is theirs for life.
“Your university is changing, and you contributed to making it a better institution,” he said. “My colleagues and I look forward to following your progress as you make a difference in this world.”
A complete list of graduates will be announced following the posting of grades from final examinations.