Western Carolina University held a pair of commencement exercises Saturday (Dec. 16) to recognize the academic accomplishments of its fall graduating class and a group of WCU alumni who completed requirements to receive their degrees last summer.
Highlights from the events at Ramsey Regional Activity Center included addresses delivered by a couple of graduating students, remarks by University of North Carolina System President Margaret Spellings and the traditional “chancellor’s charge” to the graduating students and alumni delivered by Susan Brummell Belcher, wife of WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher, on his behalf.
WCU’s fall class includes about 830 students who recently have been finishing academic requirements to complete their degrees. Members of the fall class were joined in the ceremonies by alumni who finished their academic work during summer school and who already have been conferred degrees. Undergraduate students wore purple gowns for the events, while graduate students donned black gowns.
Commencement for undergraduate and graduate students from the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Education and Allied Professions, and Fine and Performing Arts was held at 10 a.m., followed by a 2 p.m. ceremony for undergraduate and graduate students from the colleges of Business, Health and Human Sciences, and Engineering and Technology.
Christopher Hayden McAteer, a member of the fall class from Monroe, presented the primary address for the morning event. McAteer immediately drew a cheer from the Ramsey Center audience with his initial remarks. “My name is Hayden McAteer, and as of today, I am the first man in my family to graduate from college,” he said.
McAteer said he always has thought of life as a highway. “Life and highways both have smooth straightaways, winding sharp curves, steep inclines and declines,” he said. “It can be both positive and negative, but it’s how you got here. So, today, we get to celebrate our achievements with the family and friends who have worked hard and supported us on our road to this day. For all the ones who helped us along, this one’s for you.”
McAteer, a communication major at WCU, urged his fellow graduating students to use commencement day to reflect back on the reasons they decided to go to college, the struggles they have had to overcome and the good times.
“So, what do you do after the time for looking in the rear-view mirror is over?” he said. “You rip it off and throw it out of the car. We need to start looking forward, to the world beyond Cullowhee, beyond Catamount Nation. It’s time once again for a major turning point in our highway and in our lives. Stay true to yourself and your family, know what you are worth.”
The primary address for the afternoon commencement was delivered by Hayley Teresa Twing, a business administration and law major from Sanford. Twing spoke about her first day as a student on the WCU campus, which was “exciting, yet terrifying.”
“Everything was new and I was here on a mission, headed for today as my goal destination,” she said. “I’m sure it was similar for all of you. We all come from different places, cultures and religions – each of us unique, yet each sharing the desire for an education that would in some way better our lives. We sit here today proving to ourselves, our friends and our families that we got that education that we were searching for. But, what we all probably didn’t count on was how much more we got from WCU.”
Twing said she became part of the WCU culture during her first few months on campus and learned the meanings behind some terms such as “Cat Cash” and “the Whee.”
“Some say what happens in the Whee stays in the Whee,” she said. “Honestly, I don’t believe that at all. This time was too valuable to each of us to leave it behind. So, we will take the Whee with us wherever we go.”
UNC President Spellings brought greetings on behalf of the UNC System at both ceremonies.
“What a momentous occasion,” Spellings said. “It is an honor to be here with so many grandparents and parents, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and family, and, of course, our hundreds of new WCU graduates.
“It’s always great to be in Cullowhee because the Catamount spirit is truly special,” she said. “This is a family. It’s a community that cares about one another and cares about the region and the people it serves. Standing here, I feel this sense of community, of family, more strongly than most any other place, especially as we gather here today.”
Spellings urged the graduating students and alumni to remember the new friends, role models and mentors they found during their time on campus – to remember individuals such as Chancellor David Belcher, “a man who is an example of how to do it right.”
“How to lead fearlessly, but inclusively,” she said. “How to keep the trust of your community and empower them to new heights. How to make brave, creative bets while staying true to a core mission. How to truly care for the people you lead.
“As you go out to fulfill your dreams and make your mark on the world, I know each of you will remember his example and the example of many at Western,” Spellings said.
Susan Brummell Belcher presented the chancellor’s charge as her husband stood by her side at the podium during both events. WCU’s chancellor has been battling brain cancer since April 2016 and announced recently that he will be going on medical leave Dec. 31, and he does not expect to return to his duties. In his announcement, he said the aphasic impact of the disease on his speech has become more pronounced in recent months.
Susan Belcher reminded the graduating students and alumni to remain firm in their commitment to excellence and high standards, to continue learning, to nurture their connections to other people and to work to make the world a better place.
“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 path, to come back home to reground yourself on a regular basis in this remarkable slice of heaven we call Cullowhee,” she said.
Chancellor Belcher closed out the charge both times with these comments:
“Western Carolina University is in the business of changing lives, and with your passion, your energy and support, and your service and advocacy, and your absolute commitment to our university, there is no telling what you will do,” he said. “Congratulations to you, and for the record, go Cats!”
After all the graduating students and alumni crossed the stage to be recognized, Chancellor Belcher serenaded them with blasts from a couple of air horns.
Other speakers for the ceremonies included David Powers, a member of the UNC Board of Governors who serves as the board’s liaison to WCU; Robin Pate, president of the WCU Alumni Association; and WCU Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar.
Special recognition was given during the events to Ernie Hudson, WCU chief of police, who will be retiring soon. Hudson has been with the university police department nearly 12 years, including almost eight years as chief. His career in police work spans 38 years.
Recognition also was given to all the graduating students and alumni from summer school 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.
A complete list of the university’s new graduates will be announced following the posting of grades from final examinations.
Watch WCU’s Dec. 16 commencements: