WCU holds commencement exercises to honor fall class, summer graduates

Soon-to-be graduates wait for the processional for the afternoon commencement to begin.

Amid cheers, rousing applause and even a few whoops, Western Carolina University held two commencement exercises Saturday (Dec. 14) at Ramsey Regional Activity Center to recognize the academic accomplishments of its fall class and a group of alumni who completed requirements to receive their degrees last summer.

Commencement for undergraduate and graduate students from the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Education and Allied Professions, and Belcher College of Fine and Performing Arts was held in a morning ceremony, with an afternoon ceremony for undergraduate and graduate students from the colleges of Business, Health and Human Sciences, and Engineering and Technology.

By the end of the day, the WCU Alumni Association had welcomed some 850 new members to its ranks.

Mary Hill Lewis, a distance student who majored in birth-to-kindergarten education, spoke at the morning ceremony.

“Today, higher education has made me proud of myself, has allowed me to feel that I’m just as important as those around me and has healed my heart of my childhood traumas,” said Lewis, who grew up in a home disrupted by the death of her father and a mother with drug and alcohol abuse issues. Childhood was often an act of survival, she said, punctuated with time in and out of foster homes.

Chancellor Kelli R. Brown gives a hug to afternoon student speaker Ellie McIntosh.

“Advocating for young children is my passion in life, as every child deserves a voice,” she said. “I will accept every opportunity to speak up for a child with passion as no child should ever have to experience the heartache I had to overcome. My education will provide opportunities that would never been in the realm of possibilities.”

Lewis began to pursue an associate degree at a community college at the same time her daughter began her university studies.

“As I share my story today, I hope that each of you can reflect on your own story and those that have inspired you to search for the power within yourself to achieve your goals,” she said. “Class of 2019, I ask you today to pledge with me to continue to share life experiences, to continue to seek out listening opportunities, to yearn for additional knowledge and to be grateful for the determination instilled in us to complete our task today. I encourage you to mold your heart into a warrior and be your best advocate. Take time to listen to those around you, be slow to speak, savor the experiences of those have stood exactly where you are at this moment. Cherish your individuality as you prepare yourself to take the next journey.

“Let all of us always reminisce how our hearts feel today as we forever leave our paw mark on Cullowhee as we call Western Carolina University home.”

Lindsey “Ellie” McIntosh, a distance student in WCU’s master’s degree program in entrepreneurship, provided remarks for the afternoon event. Already well on her way as an entrepreneur. McIntosh is the owner and principal designer at EllieMAC Designs, a commercial and residential interior design company, and gave 10 lessons as learned as an entrepreneur, with examples like “No. 1: be prepared” and “No. 6: you can get the job you want but you may not get it right away.”

There was an opportunity to observe decorative messages via mortar boards.

In the audience was her 18-year-old son, Hunter, currently enrolled at WCU as an engineering student and who once sat on his mother’s lap while she attended classes. “When he graduates, he can brag that he has been studying in college since the age of 6,” she said. “Years ago, seeds of wonder were planted, nurtured, trimmed, grown and propagated. They have blossomed into my achievement as I have earned this master’s degree in entrepreneurship, and the seeds have sprouted new growth in my son, Hunter.”

Both commencements included recognition for all the graduating students and recent alumni 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.

“Graduates, each of you have worked diligently, passionately and tirelessly, earning the distinct privilege to be seated before us today,” WCU Chancellor Kelli R. Brown said in her first commencement address since beginning her role at the university on July 1. “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 in your lifetime, a milestone that creates a future of unlimited possibilities.”

More than 100 of the graduates are first generation college students and nearly 200 attended thanks to scholarships.

“As citizens of the world, we face many challenges and many opportunities ― excellent health care for a changing population, innovation in an age of automation and robotics, development of sustainable earth-friendly energies, access to affordable and high quality education, construction and design of energy efficient homes and buildings, supporting a burgeoning hospitality and tourism industry, and the continual discovery in how to maintain the beauty and biodiversity of places like Western North Carolina. And this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Brown said.

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