WCU holds trio of commencements for expected record spring class


Recognition of graduating students with perfect GPAs, the presentation of an honorary doctorate to an aerospace engineer, and speeches from one of the University of North Carolina System’s top teachers and one of Western Carolina University’s stellar graduate students were among the highlights Friday and Saturday (May 11-12) as WCU held a trio of commencement exercises.

Commencement for WCU’s Graduate School was held Friday night, and Saturday included a morning ceremony for the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Education and Allied Professions, and Fine and Performing Arts, followed by an afternoon commencement for the colleges of Business, Health and Human Sciences, and Engineering and Technology.

After grades from final exams are tallied and academic records finalized, WCU’s spring class, including recipients of both undergraduate and graduate degrees, is expected to total more than 1,600 graduates, which would be the largest class in university history. About 1,500 graduating students were expected to participate in the events at Ramsey Regional Activity Center as their families and friends looked on.

Jennifer Le’An Yoe-Gaddy

Three University Scholars – undergraduate students who enrolled at WCU as freshmen and completed all their studies with perfect 4.0 GPAs – were honored during the Saturday afternoon commencement. Those students, with their majors and hometowns listed, are Michaela Nichole Ball, nursing, Huntersville; Madison Reed Garren, nursing, Hendersonville; and Daniel James Holchin, athletic training, Taylorsville.

Jennifer Le’An Yoe-Gaddy, a graduate student receiving her master’s degree in social work, was the featured speaker for the Graduate School ceremony. The Weaverville resident spoke to her fellow graduating students about the circuitous route she took in earning her associate and bachelor’s degrees and said she had intended to speak to them about how to persevere in life.

“But, it turns out that that is precisely the question I couldn’t answer for you because I couldn’t even answer it for myself,” Yoe-Gaddy said. “So, I turned to someone much wiser and someone who knew a thing or two about perseverance. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in addressing a graduating class of seventh-graders, expressed the importance of having a blueprint for your life. In that blueprint, he posited that the first thing you should have is a ‘deep belief in your own dignity, your own worth and your own somebodiness.’ I always believed that I had something to give to the world, and I believed, contrary to all the evidence, that I was smart. And, although I needed some help answering for you the question of how to persevere, what I can tell you is what it has meant for me. What it means is that I kept trying.

“We all have our stories,” she said. “Our stories, and the stories of all the graduates in this room, are certainly all unique, but undoubtedly we share one vital characteristic. We have grit, and it is your possession of this characteristic that is worthy of a sincere congratulations this evening.”

The Saturday morning undergraduate commencement included the presentation of the University of North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching to WCU English professor Laura Wright, who was recently announced as one of 17 recipients of that honor across the UNC System. After accepting her award, Wright, a resident of Candler, related to the graduating students and audience several stories that demonstrated a need for individuals to pursue truth, knowledge and empathy.

“Here’s what I want you to consider with regard to those things as you get ready to leave WCU,” Wright said to the students. “Be a skeptic; you’ve learned a lot, but the truth is tricky, and no matter how smart you are, it’s easier to believe what you want to believe – what feels comfortable to believe – than what is true.

Laura Wright

“Second, don’t ignore what’s inconvenient, but be willing to be ignorant, or, rather, operate from a place of curious ignorance, a place from which you recognize that your learning is never complete,” she said. “Again, you have learned a lot, but learning doesn’t end when you graduate or when you get a job and master it, or when you retire, hopefully wealthy and happy in your golden years. Always be ready to admit when you don’t know something and always be ready to learn more. And, most importantly, be kind. Oh, and read literature. Doing so will make you a better person. Science says so.”

The Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching is given annually to a faculty member on each UNC campus to recognize superior teaching. Wright received her award from Board of Governors member Steve Long, who also delivered greetings and congratulations to the graduating students at all three commencements on behalf of the board and the UNC Office of the President.

As part of the Saturday afternoon undergraduate ceremony, WCU presented an honorary doctorate of science degree to Stephen A. Edmonds. The Franklin resident played an integral role in the design of vital components for the most advanced aircraft engines ever developed during his 25-year career with the aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney Aircraft.

As she presented the honorary doctorate to Edmonds, WCU Acting Chancellor Alison Morrison-Shetlar read from the degree citation, saying his “more than half a century of dedicated service as a pioneer in the fields of gas turbine engines, jet propulsion and fluid dynamics has positively affected the lives of many and has led to numerous scientific advancements that we now take for granted.”

A native of Huntington, West Virginia, Edmonds was instrumental in the design of axial flow compressors for military aircraft such as the F-35 Lightning II, which is the largest military procurement program in U.S. history and includes aircraft for the Air Force, Navy and Marines in addition to nine partner nations, Morrison-Shetlar said.

Edmonds and his wife, Cathy, have been faithful supporters of WCU and its engineering program, Morrison-Shetlar said. They have established an endowed scholarship fund to assist students in paying for their educations, and Stephen Edmonds also has served as an adjunct professor.

“I am very grateful for this high honor, especially as it is coming from Western Carolina University,” Edmonds said as he accepted the honorary doctorate.

Edmonds then related to the graduating students that he wanted to give them “a sure-fire investment tip.”

Stephen A. Edmonds of Franklin receives his honorary doctorate hood from WCU Acting Provost Carol Burton as Acting Chancellor Alison Morrison-Shetlar looks on.

“No, it’s not gold, Microsoft, Facebook or even Tesla,” he said. “Listen closely. Invest in yourself. How do you do that? Well, you’ve already started. You are about to receive the profits from your invested long hours of work and study to get a college degree. You have made it. Congratulations.”

Edmonds said the graduating students have demonstrated their “AQ,” a term first proposed to him by his grandfather, Swede Gullickson, a well-known educator at Marshall University. “(Gullickson) said the best indication of future success is the Achievement Quotient, or AQ. His AQ is a test of your persistence, your determination and your toughness under difficulties,” Edmonds said.

“If you have a high IQ but a low AQ, you are destined to mediocrity. It’s like a pretty car without an engine. It looks nice but it won’t get you anywhere. Rev up your AQ engine. Strive to learn everything you can and become the smartest person in the world in your profession. This is your investment. It’s sure to pay significant benefits.”

All three events included remarks by Robin Parton Pate, president of the WCU Alumni Association, and special recognition for 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 on their caps and gowns.

Morrison-Shetlar delivered the charge to the graduating students at the three ceremonies. She congratulated them on the hard work and perseverance that got them to graduation day.

“Each of you has worked diligently, passionately and tirelessly, earning the distinct privilege to be seated before us today,” she said. “You have believed in your dreams. You have set sights on your goals. You have completed all the difficult and necessary tasks to reach this day, a day that represents one of the most significant milestones of your lifetime – a milestone that makes possible a future of unlimited possibilities.

“Graduates, it is now up to you to create the world in which you wish to live,” Morrison-Shetlar said. “It is your freshly born ideas that will create sustainable environments. It is your vision of the future that will eliminate poverty and hunger. It is your ability to take your educational experience and apply it to create international innovation and collaboration, and, most importantly, it is your ability to believe in peace, justice and equality that will make that a reality for all. Graduates, the future is yours. And the world is counting on you.”

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