The fall semester came to a close at Western Carolina University on Saturday (Dec. 14) as commencement exercises were held in Ramsey Regional Activity Center to recognize the university’s newest graduating class and a group of WCU alumni who were awarded degrees in August.
WCU’s fall class includes about 700 students who recently have been completing academic requirements to receive their degrees, and approximately 600 of those students took part in WCU’s commencement. Another group of 195 graduates who completed degree requirements during summer school and who already have been conferred degrees also joined in the ceremony.
WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher presided over commencement and delivered the charge to the fall semester degree candidates and summer graduates.
Commencement activities included an address delivered by graduating student T’Shana Marie McClain and the awarding of an honorary doctor of letters degree to Cullowhee poet Kathryn Stripling Byer in recognition of her literary body of work and service to the university.
A Georgia native, Byer earned a bachelor’s degree at Wesleyan College in Macon, Ga., and a master’s degree in fine arts at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro before joining the WCU faculty as an English instructor in 1968. Her other roles at the university over the years have included serving as poet-in-residence from 1990 to 1998.
Reading from the honorary doctorate citation, Belcher noted that Byer released the first volume in her series of award-winning poetry collections, “The Girl in the Midst of the Harvest,” in 1986. “In the nearly three decades since then, you have illuminated the lives of strong Southern Appalachian women and reflected on topics as diverse as death, race and the events of September 11, 2001, with a series of critically acclaimed books of verse that have solidified your status as one of the preeminent poets of our time,” Belcher read.
Byer served as North Carolina’s first female poet laureate from 2005 until 2009. Belcher said that Byer, in that role, “established a new standard for activism and education by taking poetry into schools and communities throughout the state” and by connecting with readers through her web blogs. “Your actions as the state’s poet laureate are indicative of the great generosity you have exhibited throughout your writing life in introducing the public to the wondrous realm of poetry and in your support and mentorship for emerging authors across the state,” said Belcher, still reading from the citation. “In 2012, your place in North Carolina’s rich literary heritage, the magnitude of your artistic talents and the enduring value of your body of work were recognized when you were inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame.”
After being presented with the honorary doctorate, Byer thanked university officials for the honor and read a poem she wrote, “Beginning at the Bottom,” which is a tribute to the small-town library of her childhood.
Byer congratulated all the graduating students and new alumni on their accomplishments, and also expressed gratitude to WCU’s English majors and Department of English faculty – “people who still believe, in a time when reading is in decline, in the well-made sentence.”
“Thank you for believing that language still matters – that loving it and encouraging others to love it is a calling worthy of a lifetime’s devotion,” she said. “I salute you brave English majors who face the challenge of texting, Twitter and Instagram. Your challenge to the larger community will be to turn off the laptop and open a book. Resist multi-tasking, which is a myth anyway. Sit down with a book – a good book – a great book. Just do it.”
Commencement speaker McClain, a sociology and psychology major from Stony Point in Alexander County, is a dean’s list student who is enrolled in WCU’s Honors College. She began her address by announcing her intention to “talk about what it means to be a graduate of Western Carolina University.”
McClain said her experience at WCU has allowed her to learn a new definition of success. “Success is a collaboration of individuals striving to promote each other and understanding that no one succeeds alone,” she said. “Western taught me to look directly at the role we, as a society, play in defining success and to challenge it because success is not about wealth or even happiness – it’s the realization that none of us is exceptional because we are all exceptional. We are all individuals with dreams and passions, and although we do not fully expect those dreams to become realities or those passions to make us millionaires, they define who we are and we are better people because of them.”
McClain told the commencement audience that she was first introduced to her new definition of success by Peter Nieckarz, WCU associate professor of sociology, who “completely turned my world upside down” with his interactive lectures. For their last assignment in Nieckarz’ class, students were told to write a narrative of their lives and describe how their noteworthy successes “consisted of the influences of others, certain societal factors, or just downright luck coupled with motivation and talent,” McClain said. The class helped her to acknowledge that “sometimes I just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” she said.
“This awareness is the kind of honest consciousness Western Carolina University affords its students, instead of the happy-go-lucky version of reality that doesn’t prepare you for the obstacles you’re soon to face,” she said. “Western Carolina University offered us avenues to learn about ourselves, to think for ourselves and to learn about others; through these, I discovered who I am and who I want to be, and I know I am not alone.”
Belcher delivered the chancellor’s charge to the graduating students and new alumni. He told them that this is their moment to celebrate, but the moment “belongs to others as well.”
“I daresay that not one graduate here today has reached this point without support in one form or another – from parents, a spouse, children, grandparents, other family members and friends. This is their moment, too,” Belcher said. The same holds true for everyone on WCU’s campus, from the faculty members who taught the students in the classroom to the grounds crew “who make this campus a showplace,” he said.
Belcher told those dressed in caps and gowns that regardless of whether they have their futures mapped out or they are uncertain what is coming next, they have the minds and skills to chart their own courses in life. “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 continue learning, whether in formal settings or on your own,” he said. “As you pursue your careers and making money – as you do well – remember to do good.”
A complete list of WCU’s new graduates will be announced following the posting of grades from final examinations.