Stories of success

Lydia Ritchie

ECU softball pitcher

You could say it's about numbers for ECU softball pitcher Lydia Ritchie. As in GPA and ERA.

Through mid-March, the senior had a 3.04 earned run average. And through the fall semester, her grades put her among the top of her class. She's received the ECU Academic Award of Excellence.

On the diamond, she entered the season 10th on ECU's all-time strikeout list with 218. Through mid-March, Ritchie had an 8-5 record with 52 more strikeouts.

Ritchie is accustomed to achievement. She was valedictorian of her high school class in Pikeville, Tennessee, and began her college career at Division III Berry College in Georgia, where her older brother was on the football team. But she longed for the chance to play Division I softball, and former ECU coach Beth Keylon-Randolph recruited her to Greenville.

"I came on my visit, and I knew immediately this was where I wanted to be," Ritchie says. She transferred the spring semester of her freshman year. Since arriving, the recreation therapy major has made the all-conference academic team each year as well as earning weekly American Athletic Conference honor roll recognition five times for on-field performance. 

She was named AAC pitcher of the week Feb. 20, the first time an ECU pitcher has received the honor since the Pirates joined the American, and was ECU’s co-student-athlete of the month for February.

Under coach Courtney Oliver, Ritchie has lowered her ERA by more than half a run and entered her final season as a preseason pick for pitcher of the year. Fastpitch News ranks her the 35th-best NCAA pitcher for the 2017 season. 

Ritchie calls Oliver’s workouts “rigorous.” 

“I definitely had to work a lot harder,” she says. And that helped reinforce the idea that work yields results, she adds. 

She also credits ECU’s academic advisors with keeping tabs on students and making sure they don’t fall behind. 

“In this university, everybody’s there for you because they want you to succeed,” she says. 

David Loy, an associate professor of recreational therapy, calls Ritchie “one of the best recreational therapy students I’ve ever had in class. True meaning of student-athlete.” 

After graduation, Ritchie hopes to attend graduate school and work with children and adults with autism. 

Though she’s accomplished a lot, she’s not relaxing, either in class or on the mound. 

“I don’t want to slack off at the end,” she says. 

-Doug Boyd


Bob Lucas, Tremayne Smith and Shannon Russell

Former SGA presidents

The opportunities ECU gives its students help breed success, according to former Student Government Association presidents.

"Some kids just need the door opened," says Bob Lucas '74, who served as SGA president in 1974-1975 and on the ECU Board of Trustees from 2006-2011, including as chairman the last two years. "They can do it themselves if you give them the opportunity, and I think that's what East Carolina stands for."

Lucas says he enjoyed serving on the board because he likes helping students. At ECU, he spent his junior year abroad in Germany, where he learned the political, economic and social systems of European countries while visiting most of them.
Bob Lucas
"That's how I got involved in student government," says Lucas, who is president and managing attorney with Lucas Denning and Ellerbe in Selma.

Lucas earned the nickname "Radical Robert" for calling attention to a plan to levy student fees to pay for lights at the football stadium. "It wasn't so much the fee, but if you're going to tax students with costs, at least ask them about it," says Lucas.

Another issue was a proposed tuition increase that led to the formation of the UNC Association of Student Governments, which still exists.

Lucas served as the first president of the association, which helped defeat the tuition increase by holding demonstrations with the same signs on the same day at the same time at universities across the state. "It showed that students could have success if they got organized," he says.

He says he is forever grateful for his time at ECU. "I wouldn't have been able to achieve what I have without ECU giving me an opportunity," he says.

Tremayne Smith, who was SGA president in 2010-2011, says he still practices what he learned from mentor Lynn Roeder, ECU dean of students. "She was very formative in my early leadership experience," Smith says. "She says 'You're on an upward trajectory, but don't forget to look back and help others. Lift as you climb,' and I've always wanted to do that."

Tremayne SmithSmith, known for his backflips as a Marching Pirates drum major, got involved in many ways, from the ECU College Democrats to helping charter Phi Gamma Delta fraternity to eventual junior class president and SGA.

"I had some false starts and mistakes obviously, but for me, my roughest moment was my senior year when my aunt passed away suddenly from cancer.

I really had not been knocked off my foundation before," Smith says. "Dr. Roeder and a host of others helped me through that."

Five weeks after graduation, Smith moved to Washington, D.C., where he interned with U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan. He was lured back home to serve as band director in Rocky Mount, where he helped grow membership, encouraging his band members to run for office and get involved in clubs.

In one of the hardest decisions he's faced, Smith left as band director to become a special assistant with Rep. G.K. Butterfield and pursue a master's degree in political management at George Washington University. "In my leaving, I said, 'It's OK to pursue other interests, and I'm encouraging you to continue your education,'" Smith says.

He says he has a lot of work to do to reach his ultimate goal. "I do see myself running for and winning the presidency of the United States one day," Smith says.

Attorney Shannon Russell transferred to ECU after falling in love with campus at an open house. She got involved to avoid the lack of connectivity she felt at her previous university.
Shannon Russell
"I got too involved," she says. After her grades slid, she sought help at the Office of Student Transitions, where she learned how to balance student life, prioritize and still succeed academically.

A member of Zeta Tau Alpha sorority, she later ran for student body senator and became chair of two SGA committees before winning the student body president seat in 2004-2005.

Only the fifth woman elected to ECU's top office, she says it was great preparation for becoming an attorney.

Political science professor emeritus Maurice Simon and communications professor Pam Hopkins were important mentors. "It was very difficult to ascertain which political party he (Simon) was affiliated with," she says. "His neutrality helped me to form my own opinion. It's what we call 'critical thinking' now."

Hopkins' speech course helped in Russell's role as a student leader, remembering a presentation she gave at orientation. "As an attorney, you have to talk a lot. It gave me practical skills that I still use to this day."

Former Chancellor Steve Ballard, who had just joined ECU at the time, was another mentor. "He deferred to me to get that student opinion," Russell says.

Now a wife and mother of two young children, she recently started her own consulting firm.

Russell has great memories of being in SGA and meeting so many wonderful people. "I think if you look at how I was able to be successful, it truly was just from one single step of getting involved to becoming a senator and part of a student organization."

Her advice to students: "Get involved. Be something more than just in the classroom. That's how I got to law school."

-Crystal Baity

Chris Bullock

Jazz musician

Chris Bullock '03 inhabits many musical worlds.

Bullock's early love for music was nurtured by church music, piano lessons and the Beach Boys before the clarinet and electric guitar entered his adolescence. But after doing due diligence in a couple of long-haired garage bands, Bullock stumbled on a radio jazz broadcast and became obsessed with the saxophone.

This obsession has now rewarded the jazz studies major with two Grammy Awards-Best R&B Performance in 2014 and Best Contemporary Instrumental Album in 2016 and again this year-playing and recording with the multi-genre ensemble Snarky Puppy, performing in more than 50 countries.

"The journey with Snarky Puppy has been quite an experience," Bullock says. "For many years, we were schlepping around the U.S. in vans with no air conditioning, playing close-to-empty rooms. Through a lot of hard work, time and energy we are now able to perform all over the world to attentive audiences."

The artists Bullock has worked with include David Crosby, Lalah Hathaway, Charlie Hunter, Phish, the Metropole Orkest and others. Recent projects have him performing on saxophone, clarinet, flutes and synthesizers, and his interest in hip-hop and electronic music has him exploring new ventures that include deejaying, beat-making and production.

Bullock"I have always had somewhat of an eclectic taste, and I've tried to embrace that in my musical endeavors and find my own blend of influences and interests," Bullock says. "It's only natural to combine that in the various musical situations I find myself in." 

Bullock's ECU experience instilled in him an interest for teaching, and he now presents clinics and master classes at high schools, conservatories and universities across North and South America, Europe and even Cuba.

"My time at ECU was a very influential period for my development as a musician," Bullock says. "It was during those four years that I established a work ethic and drive to pursue this current path.

"Dr. Jeff Bair, my saxophone professor, was and continues to be a very meaningful and significant mentor and teacher. He embodied a strong balance of encouragement and challenge to his teaching. As well, Carroll Dashiell, a jazz professor, exhibited a selfless approach to teaching and growing an appreciation and love for music."

Bullock will release his first solo recording this year and will tour with his own band in addition to Snarky Puppy.

-Harley Dartt

Rick Latham

Drummer, composer, author

2017 marks 50 years that Rick Latham '77 has been playing drums. And if it can be done on a drum set, Latham has been there, done it and wrote the book on it. Literally.

An in-demand studio and touring drummer, a successful solo artist, a published author and composer, Latham is the drummer with Grammy Award-winning artist Juice Newton and is founder of the all-star jazz ensemble Rick Latham and the Groove Doctors.

LathemHowever, it was the success of his groundbreaking drum text Advanced Funk Studies-called "The bible for funky drumming" by Drums and Percussion Magazine-published when he was just 25 that launched him into the international percussion spotlight. Latham has gone on to publish two more drum texts, produce numerous instructional videos and conduct clinics worldwide.

"Being able to teach others around the world and writing instructional material that has been accepted internationally by my peers is very gratifying," Latham says. "I enjoy passing on useful information, based on my personal and professional experiences, that may help encourage others." 

But it is his expertise as a versatile performing and recording artist that has made him one of contemporary drumming's most respected players.

Latham has performed with greats in all genres: R&B bass legend Chuck Rainey, bluesman B.B. King, rockers Edgar Winter, Rick Derringer and Neal Schon, jazz artists Howard Roberts, Bill Watrous, Jerry Coker and others. He has performed on numerous television and movie DVD tracks including the 9 to 5 and Fame series, Gone in 60 Seconds, Daredevil and Spiderman, and his compositions have been featured on television, in films and as product jingles."I love the fact that I have the opportunity to perform with many different artists in many different music genres," Latham says. "Feeling comfortable and being able to adapt quickly to the various styles is something very important to a professional musician, and I feel that ECU certainly helped prepare me for this."

Latham started drumming at age 12. Initially self-taught, he worked on the technical aspects of drumming, but his primary focus was always on playing "the groove."

"To me, it's all about the groove," he says. "The groove of a song is something that is not easily explainable; however, it is more felt, it's the feeling conveyed.

"Whether, pop, rock, R&B, jazz or even classical-it all has a certain groove or feeling that is important. As a drummer, it's my job to make sure it feels right and grooves, no matter what the style."

At ECU, Latham studied with renowned percussion professor emeritus Harold Jones and won the School of Music's Young Artist Concerto Award.

"My years at ECU are so memorable and important to me for many reasons-great teachers, great friends and great overall experiences," Latham says. "Studying with Harold Jones at that time has had such a major, positive influence on my career.

"Harold's guidance and preparation for the real world is something I will always be most grateful for. An incredible teacher, friend and mentor. I think of him every time I perform."

Latham is based in Los Angeles and Milano, Italy.

-Harley Dartt

Beatrice White

Nurse administrator

Beatrice White '16 is an ECU success story as an alumna, an employee and a mother.

White began her 23-year career with ECU in 1990 as an administrative assistant for Dr. Walter Pories, the founding chair of the Department of Surgery, before deciding to pursue an associate's degree in nursing from Pitt Community College.

She began working as a staff nurse in ECU's Pediatric Outpatient Center in 2000. But even after working her way up to a nursing management position, she still wanted to go back to school and earn a bachelor's degree. B-White

White waited until her sons completed their baccalaureate degrees at ECU-both are former ECU cheerleaders-and entered the university's online RN-to-BSN program while she continued working full time as a nurse administrator for pediatrics. Though a bachelor's degree wasn't a requirement for her position, she felt that earning one would make her a better role model for students.

"The location and not having to do so many more prerequisites were the main reasons," White says of choosing ECU's program, adding that the instructors were engaging and made the experience rewarding." 

They just have an awesome program. That's just the reputation that ECU has," she says.

White earned her bachelor's degree in December. She credits her husband, William, with providing the support necessary for her to devote time to her studies while remaining a full-time employee.

Success, she says, is a matter of making a firm decision.

"The hardest thing is deciding to do it," she says. "You can have many things that you think you want to do, but when you make up your mind and are determined that 'This is what I'm going to do,' that's when you'll be successful."

-Natalie Sayewich

Taylor Nelson

Honors College nursing student

Like many students entering college, Taylor Nelson wanted to change the world. As a junior she still does. And after working nearly two years on a Susan G. Komen health grant with ECU professors Kathy Verbanac and Ann Schreier, her ideas about how she might do that have changed.

Nelson, a Mocksville native, always knew growing up that she wanted to focus on women's health, and a trip to Ethiopia during high school instilled a desire to work internationally.

Nelson The summer after her freshman year at ECU, she began working on the Komen grant, which provides free mammograms to uninsured and underinsured women in Pitt County. The following summer she was selected for the State Employees Credit Union Public Service Fellows program and worked with Verbanac and Schreier to expand the Komen grant into neighboring Wilson County. Working with the Wilson County Health Department and Wilson Medical Center, they provided free clinical breast exams and mammograms to the uninsured and underinsured.

"I went out in the community and did a lot of work to advertise our project and encourage women to participate in breast cancer screenings," Nelson says.

Connecting with women in the community, Nelson began to see the impact she was capable of making in eastern North Carolina.

"I knew I wanted to reach out and work with the underserved community, but this kind of opened my eyes," Nelson says. "I just realized how much need there is right here in Greenville. The biggest way that my goals have changed is that I'd really like to stay here in eastern North Carolina and make a difference here."

In her second semester of nursing school, Nelson is a member of the Honors College and Gamma Sigma Sigma service sorority. She hopes to pursue a doctorate after graduation.

Nelson says the opportunity to work on the things that interest her keeps her motivated, and having faculty support in her endeavors has been instrumental to her success.

"I knew when I came to college I wanted to work on women's health," she says. "That progressed into the Komen grant, and I'm about to start my senior honors project, which will be exploring alternative medicine and how it can help relieve common discomfort from pregnancy. That is awesome to me… . I actually get to do what I enjoy and what I think will make a difference."

-Natalie Sayewich

Jake Francisco

Honors College biology, chemistry student

One of ECU's most accomplished undergraduates is certain to continue to make an impact after he graduates this spring. Jake Francisco, who will earn a bachelor of science in biology and a bachelor of arts in chemistry, says he chose those majors because he knew he wanted to pursue a career in medicine.

He credits the Honors College as well as faculty, family and friends for helping get him this far. For his part, he has been involved in campus life, tutoring students at the Pirate Academic Success Center and serving as vice president of the ECU Chemistry Club and secretary of the club sport badminton team. He's also a member of the ODK National Leadership Honors Society.

As an undergraduate student, Francisco has already been published as a co-author of two scientific papers. Jake Francisco

"During my sophomore year, I wanted to gain more knowledge and experience with scientific research," he says.

After taking the initiative to learn about laboratories on ECU's Main Campus and at the Brody School of Medicine, he contacted David Tulis in the physiology department at Brody, who took Francisco on as a volunteer in the lab. 

"Under the guidance of Dr. Tulis and graduate students within the lab, I began to learn procedures and basic research skills," Francisco says. "I would take the bus from Main Campus over to Brody almost every day after class. During the summer, I would come in every morning and stay until the afternoon."

Eventually he earned more autonomy and the opportunity to participate in several ongoing studies focusing on cardiovascular physiology and pathology. His name is now on two published papers, and he says more are in the works.

Francisco, who grew up in Greenville, has applied to and hopes to attend medical school after graduation.

"Being a part of the Honors College here at ECU has provided me with numerous opportunities both academically and for personal growth," he says. "Faculty such as Dr. David Tulis, Dr. Tim Christensen, Dr. Todd Fraley and others have provided me not only with knowledge, but also with invaluable guidance and advice. My friends and family have been so instrumental in my success through their unwavering support."

-Jules Norwood

Austin Phillips

EC Scholar

For junior communications major Austin Phillips, the key to success has been embracing a world of opportunity. Through the EC Scholars program, he has participated in study abroad, volunteer stints and activities fueled by a love of sports. He has found ways to open his mind to meeting his potential and helping others meet theirs.
A Phillips
"When I serve it allows me to do what I love, which is to help people," Phillips says. "To exemplify service just lets me express my passions and what I love to do, and I do it to the best of my ability."

Phillips, who wants to attend law school and eventually become an athletics director for a Division I school, is interested in exposing inner-city children to Olympic sports.

He is an intern with the specialized recreation program with Greenville Parks and Recreation, helping people with special needs participate in sports and activities, including the Spring Games for Pitt County Special Olympics. He also engages middle-school students in games, sports and faith through Wyldlife, a Christian organization he leads.

The EC Scholars program also motivated Phillips to study abroad in Scotland, where he is considering attending sports-management school. While abroad, he experienced a unique mix of Scottish culture and sports.

"I was able to play sports that I never would get to in the United States and got to play some of the best golf courses in the world, including St. Andrews," he says. "The great people in Scotland combined with the sport environment they had made it an easy choice.

"Living in Scotland has broadened my view of the world and makes me want to experience it again. I would have never considered going to grad school in a foreign country until I studied abroad in Scotland."

-Spaine Stephens

Toni Abernathy

Biology student

For Toni Abernathy, an ECU education means not only the pursuit of knowledge, but also embracing opportunities for service.

AbernathyThe junior biology major from Hickory is exploring as many avenues as she can that will teach her about herself and about improving the world around her. From serving as an intern at an eastern North Carolina bird park to helping teach young students to read, Abernathy hopes her variety of activities will help her choose an occupation that helps others.

"In the back of my head I am always thinking how can I make myself better," she says. "And how can I be a better role model, how can I be a better leader my community?"

Abernathy is a State Employees Credit Union Public Service Fellow, a volunteer in reading at Third Street Academy, past chair of ECU's Children's Miracle Network Dance Marathon and a member of several other campus initiatives.

As the education intern at Sylvan Heights Bird Park in Scotland Neck, she has not only cared for birds and other animals, but also branched out into leadership roles by directing camps and teaching classes.

Taking advantage of academic and community opportunities is close to Abernathy's heart for reasons closer to home as well. Excellence and hard work run in her family, and she wants to earn her degree and meet her potential in all areas for her parents as well.

"My parents inspire me to be a better person not just by going to school but by being compassionate," Abernathy says. "I'm getting my degree for not only myself but my parents because they have helped me every step of the way."

-Spaine Stephens