WCU honors top students, revered Cherokee elder during spring commencement ceremonies

Baron Crawford of Gastonia shows off his diploma during WCU’s May 6 afternoon undergraduate commencement. Crawford is graduating from the university as a member of the Honors College and is a former president of the Student Government Association.


Recognition of undergraduate students sporting perfect GPAs for their college careers, the awarding of an honorary doctorate to a revered Cherokee elder, 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.

Among those donning caps and gowns for the events were the first graduates of WCU’s engineering program.

Commencement for graduate students was held the evening of Friday, May 5. 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 colleges of Business, Health and Human Sciences, and Engineering and Technology. WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher presided over the three events.

Commencement was held for the Graduate School on the evening of Friday, May 5.

Nearly 1,250 graduating students participated in the ceremonies. They are part of a spring class expected to exceed 1,500 graduates, which would be WCU’s sixth-straight record spring class. The exact size of this year’s class won’t be known until all academic records are finalized.

Five 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 morning ceremony. Those students, with their majors and hometowns listed, are Bryan Gress-Byrd, criminal justice, Locust; Lindsey Hilts, biology, Cary; Elissa Nelson, biology and chemistry, Colfax; Lia Plankenhorn, philosophy and anthropology, Fort Mill, South Carolina; and Elizabeth Sample, English, Youngsville.

The Saturday afternoon ceremony featured the first eight graduating students from WCU’s Bachelor of Science in Engineering Program. The university began offering the program in the fall of 2012 from the Cullowhee campus, and it was expanded to the university’s Biltmore Park instructional site in August 2014 to better serve the Asheville-Hendersonville area.

Jeffrey Ray, dean and professor in the College of Engineering and Technology, said having the first BSE students graduate is a “game changer” for Western North Carolina and the state. “These graduates will have a direct impact on the economic development of the region, assisting existing companies to fulfill the need for more technical talent and providing a valuable resource for regional economic development agencies in attracting new advanced manufacturing companies to the region,” Ray said. “The WCU College of Engineering and Technology is Western North Carolina’s engineering education destination.”

The Saturday morning commencement included the awarding of an honorary doctorate of humane letters to Jeremiah “Jerry” Wolfe, an elder of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and U.S. Navy veteran of World War II.

Wolfe taught young men and women at the Oconaluftee Job Corps in Cherokee for more than 20 years, and since 1997 has worked in outreach and education at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, where he has shared his extensive knowledge of tribal history and culture with thousands of visitors. Over the years, he also has presented programs on those topics across the state and Southeast and has been interviewed and featured in many publications and video productions.

While presenting the honorary doctorate to Wolfe, Belcher read from the degree citation and called Wolfe a “cherished living repository” of his tribe’s wisdom and said his efforts have enriched the cultural landscape of Western North Carolina, the state and nation.

“Jeremiah ‘Jerry’ Wolfe, you have served with exemplary distinction and dedication throughout your life as a member of your community and as a conservator and icon of Cherokee language and culture,” Belcher read. “You have been a tradition-bearer for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, preserving and teaching the Cherokee language, stickball traditions, knowledge of plants and traditional medicine, myths and legends, and oral history. In 2013, in recognition of your tremendous knowledge and service to your people, the Tribal Council of the Eastern Band bestowed upon you the title of ‘Beloved Man.’ You are the first Cherokee man to be honored with that distinction in more than 200 years.”

After he accepted the honorary degree, Wolfe invited the Ramsey Center audience to join him in singing the hymn “Amazing Grace” as he sang it in the Cherokee language.

“Thank you very much for this wonderful recognition,” he said. “I am honored as a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokees to receive it. I am proud to be included with all of the students that are receiving their degrees here today.”

The primary address for the Friday night Graduate School commencement was delivered by Julie Johnson-Busbin. The WCU professor of sales and marketing recently was named a recipient of the University of North Carolina system’s highest teaching honor – the Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Julie Johnson-Busbin

Johnson-Busbin, a member of the WCU faculty since 1996, spoke about the relationship between success and happiness, telling the graduating students that the idea that success doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness “flies in the face of modern work-based norms,” but it is backed up by research.

Johnson-Busbin said that when she was completing the academic work to receive her doctorate, her thought process was that once she got that degree and a “fantastic new job,” she would become successful, and then happy. That thought morphed into “once I get several articles published, then I’ll be successful and then I’ll be happy, which then became once I get tenured, and so on. The problem is that if happiness is on the opposite side of success, your brain never arrives,” she said.

“It turns out that our brains are hardwired to perform at their best when they are positive – when they are happy. Studies have found that your brain at positive is 31 percent more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed,” Johnson-Busbin said. “We could likely predict your income levels 20 years from now based on how happy you are. Now, that’s something that should get your attention. If I am happy, I will make more money. That sounds like a win-win proposal to me.

“If we can change our outlook from the old formula that success leads to happiness to a new formula in which happiness leads to success, then we can change our reality,” Johnson-Busbin said. She went on to describe three exercises that can help a person train his or her brain to become more positive in a span of three weeks, including writing down three new things to be grateful for each day, journaling every day about one positive thing that happened that day and taking part in random acts of kindness.

“The good news is that you are already happy today, which means your brain is already working harder, faster and more intelligently,” said told the graduating students. “The competitive edge is available to everyone who is willing to put in the effort. The goal is simply to get into a more positive mindset so you can reap all the benefits of being happy.”

The Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching is given annually to a faculty member on each UNC campus to recognize superior teaching. Johnson-Busbin was presented her award during the Saturday afternoon undergraduate commencement by Board of Governors member Philip Byers of Forest City. Byers 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 remarks by Robin Parton Pate, president of the WCU Alumni Association, and 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.

Belcher delivered the charge to the graduating students at the three ceremonies. He said 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 to the values for which it stands, to remain firm in your commitment to excellence and high standards, and to reject mediocrity and the ill-fated attitude of ‘good enough,’” Belcher said.

It’s time for the new graduates to take the lead in making their communities a better place, he said. “As you pursue your careers and making money – as you do well – remember to do good, as well…to be in the business of changing lives, translating what Western Carolina University has done for you into your own approach in helping other people move forward,” Belcher said. “You are a part of Western Carolina University, and Western Carolina University is a part of you, and I charge each of you, as you pursue your individual paths, to come back home to reground yourself on a regular basis in this remarkable slice of paradise known as Cullowhee.”

Belcher also recognized the contributions to numerous commencement ceremonies of longtime Ramsey Center director Bill Clarke, who will be retiring later this spring after 30 years of service to WCU.

A complete list of new WCU graduates will be announced following the posting of grades from final examinations.