UNC system president to deliver ECU commencement address

By Jeannine Manning Hutson
ECU News Services

The president of the University of North Carolina system, Thomas W. Ross, will deliver the Spring 2015 Commencement address at East Carolina University on Friday, May 8.
Tom Ross

The commencement ceremony will begin with a processional at 9 a.m. in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Almost 5,000 students are expected to receive degrees this spring, including approximately 3,480 bachelor degree candidates and 1,360 graduate degree candidates, of which 80 will receive medical degrees from the Brody School of Medicine.

The commencement will also include the 50 graduating members of the inaugural class of ECU's School of Dental Medicine. For these graduates, dental education has consisted of two novel approaches: an innovative curriculum that uses technology and online collaboration tools combined with a network of dental service learning centers spread across the state where they honed their skills as fourth-year students.

Ross, who will step down from the position in January, has been president of the 17-campus system since January 2011. A native of Greensboro, Ross is a graduate of Davidson College and the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law.

Prior to leading the UNC system, he was president of Davidson College for almost four years and served for seven years as executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, a Winston-Salem-based philanthropic organization devoted to improving the lives of the people of North Carolina.

Earlier in his career, he served as chief of staff in the office of Congressman Robin Britt and was appointed to a vacancy on the North Carolina Superior Court in 1983 – a position he held for 17 years. In 1990, North Carolina’s Chief Justice tapped him to lead a new Sentencing and Policy Advisory Committee. That panel of judges, lawyers, legislators, law enforcement officers and citizens devised a structured sentencing system that would toughen punishments for violent crimes and repeat offenses, while increasing community–based alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenses. Adopted by the NC General Assembly in 1993, the system has become a model for similar programs nationwide.

Active in civic and community activities, Ross currently serves on multiple boards, including the Board of Governors of the Center for Creative Leadership, the Executive Committee of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, and the Association of Governing Boards' Council of Presidents and Intercollegiate Athletics Project Advisory Group.

Many of ECU’s colleges, schools and departments will hold unit recognition ceremonies during commencement weekend. A complete listing can be found at

At the Ahoskie Dental Service Learning Center, Grace Harrell, left, and Dr. Alexis Brown work together to provide oral health care. (Photo by Jay Clark)


Dental Medicine students strive to serve

By Kathryn Kennedy
ECU News Services

Weeks away from the graduation of its first class of 50 dentists, the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine is already improving oral health for North Carolinians.

The school has created jobs, improved access to dental care in rural and underserved areas, and continues to pioneer a new model for teaching dental medicine.

Its reach extends far beyond Greenville. The dental school stretches into Ahoskie and Elizabeth City, Lillington and Lumberton. Davidson County in the Piedmont and the mountain towns of Sylva and Spruce Pine have a piece of the purple and gold in the form of community service learning centers, where ECU faculty train dental students and residents and patients receive care.

When they leave East Carolina in May, these Pirate graduates will be qualified to work as general dentists anywhere in the nation. But the school is betting a majority of them will work in underserved North Carolina communities.

“We only admit North Carolina residents, but we look beyond residency status to roots,” says Dr. Maggie Wilson, associate dean for student affairs at the dental school. “We want to see ties to the state. We want somebody who has a commitment to helping people, to putting others’ needs first; somebody who values service above self.”

Read the complete story in the Spring 2015 issue of East magazine.

Meredith and Jacob Parker (Photos by Cliff Hollis)  

Graduating couple only had eyes for ECU arts

By Crystal Baity
ECU News Services

It’s no stretch to say that East Carolina University seniors Meredith and Jacob Parker have an eye for art by looking at the dozens of eyeballs they made for their senior show.

The couple will graduate Friday with fine arts degrees; hers in painting and drawing and his in printmaking.
ECU spring 2015 graduates Jacob and Meredith Parker combined their work for a dual exhibition senior show. Among the work they displayed were three-dimensional clouds with eyes looking down at visitors.

Although married for nine years, the Parkers' dual exhibition in March was their first show together. Titled “Passing for Normal,” the show featured 11 of her oil paintings, 20 of his prints and six, three-dimensional clouds with eyes.

The eyes are sort of a “looming presence,” Meredith said. “They symbolize the general feeling of scrutiny - like you’re being watched wherever you go.”

“We live in a country that celebrates a warm and loving feeling of someone looking at you, and then the invasive ‘someone is looking at you,’ ” Jacob said.

“Some people really liked it and others felt uncomfortable,” Meredith added.

They had initially planned on mounting the eyeballs on a wall, but felt it would be too intimidating for viewers. So the idea for the clouds, made with balloons covered in polyester fiberfill, was born.

The Parkers are known for their interesting artwork titles such as “I’m Not Going, You Can’t Make Me Go, I’m Never Going,” “They’ll Mow You Down Easy,” “Nobody Sees a Problem with This; Just Eat it” and “This Should Be of Some Practical Use Later.”

“I like it when people see the humor in my work,” Meredith said. “I like laughing and I like making people laugh so making the titles humorous helps that happen.”

Meredith and Jacob grew up in Wilmington, were in the same Sunday school class, and attended the same middle and high schools – but never knew each other.

They met through a mutual friend, started dating at 22 and married at 24.

The couple, now 33, always had an interest in art and decided to go back to school while he was waiting tables and she was working in a bead store and teaching classes.
Work by the Parkers was on display in a senior exhibition this spring.

They moved to Greenville in 2012 after transferring from Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington. Their printmaking, drawing and art history teacher at CFCC was Ben Billingsley, the son of retired ECU art professor Carl Billingsley. “He (Ben) got me started in printmaking,” Jacob said.

Meredith’s metals teacher at CFCC, Nick Mowers, was an ECU alumnus, and there were other faculty in the college’s art department who were ECU graduates too.

There also were a couple of family connections. Meredith’s grandmother, Mary E. Lee, graduated from ECU. Jacob’s sister, Jessica Parker Padgett, is a 2008 nursing graduate.

“We didn’t apply anywhere else. It was definitely ECU,” Meredith said. “We knew it was a wonderful art school.”

Meredith had planned to study metals at ECU until a foundations class in figure drawing with associate professor Beth Blake changed her direction. “I like drawing and painting because it’s quiet, peaceful. I get the most thinking done when I’m working,” Meredith said. “I’m communicating with people but I don’t have to use words. I just get the idea out there.”

This fall, Jacob will begin graduate school at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where he will pursue a master of fine arts in printmaking. Meredith plans to work as a professional artist; she’s already begun developing a website and contacting galleries.

Jacob describes printmaking as “a variable medium where you’re building something piece by piece. The aesthetic is unlike anything else. You can tell it’s not a painting,” he said. “It’s changeable. Nothing is permanent.”

Jacob said he’d eventually like to teach. “I had teachers who made an impact on me and really turned my life around, and I’d like to do the same for someone else.”

Both say they’re lucky to have followed their passion for art to a profession. “Some people don’t discover it until it’s too late,” Meredith said.

Jacob’s work can be viewed at

ECU Class of 1915     

One hundred years of family history will walk with her across the stage

By Steve Tuttle
ECU News Services

Lots of Mary Highsmith’s friends and family will be in the audience cheering when she receives her master’s degree during graduation exercises at East Carolina University on May 8. One will be present in spirit only, but that’s the relative who will be most on Highsmith’s mind when she walks across the stage.

Highsmith said she will be thinking about her great-grandmother, Leona Cox, who graduated from East Carolina on June 6, 1915.

Mary Highsmith
“That’s been one of my big goals for the past two years, since I finished my undergraduate degree here,” Highsmith said. “I wanted to receive my master’s degree from East Carolina exactly 100 years after she did.”

Actually, Highsmith is the fourth generation of her Pender County family to graduate from East Carolina, a rare feat.

University historian John Tucker said “it’s rare, even very rare” to have ECU graduates in four generations of one family.

This case is all the more unusual, Tucker said, because the bond between Highsmith’s family and East Carolina date all the way back to the school’s earliest incarnation as a teacher training school. ECTTS was just starting its third year when Highsmith’s great-grandmother arrived.

“That person has family roots that date all the way back to the institution as it began,” he said.

The tradition that Leona Cox Dexter started in 1915 was continued by her daughter, Catherine Dexter Highsmith, who received her teaching degree at ECU in 1949 and a master’s in education in 1958.

She was followed by her daughter, Janet Blackburn Highsmith, who received her teaching degree in 1978 and a master’s in education in 1985. Thousands of pupils in Pender County and Burgaw were taught by those three generations of East Carolina graduates.

Highsmith completed her bachelor’s degree in health and human performance in 2013 before enrolling in the master’s degree program in speech-language pathology offered by the College of Allied Health Sciences.
ECU 2015 graduate Mary Highsmith's four generations of family members who also graduated from ECU are, left to right, Leona Cox Dexter, Catherine Dexter Highsmith and Janet Blackburn Highsmith.

She interned this semester in the Pender County schools as a speech and language pathologist and hopes to begin a full time job there soon.

She said her ECU experience is especially important to her because it provides a tangible connection to her roots.

“ECU provided me with a sense of connectedness,” she said. “ECU—and my family—are very community oriented, and I think that’s made me a better person. It just gives me a special feeling knowing that I will be leaving here like they did and going back to my hometown to serve my community just like they did.”

Highsmith said she’s confident she won’t be the last generation of her family to come to East Carolina.

“I’m getting married on July 18. And I know exactly where our children will be going to college.”