May 5, 2017
The threat of severe weather — not just rain, but lightning and high winds — forced the cancellation of East Carolina University’s main commencement ceremony at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, but graduates remained in good spirits and will celebrate at indoor departmental recognition ceremonies throughout today and tomorrow.
The decision to cancel the ceremony was not reached lightly; a team of university leaders and administrators met all week and early this morning to monitor the weather system moving through the area. Ultimately, the outdoor event was cancelled for the safety of students, faculty, staff and guests. It’s believed to be the first time ever that ECU’s spring commencement was completely cancelled due to the threat of severe weather.
“We’re disappointed that this morning, due to tornado watches, severe storms, rain and lightning in the area, we were unable to have our event here at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium,” said Chancellor Cecil Staton. “But we want you to know that we are incredibly proud of each and every one of you.”
ECU graduated more than 5,500 students, including almost 4,000 undergraduates. In a first for ECU, Chancellor Cecil Staton and keynote speaker Margaret Spellings, UNC System president, conferred degrees virtually in a video shared on social media.
“We know that you have great futures ahead of you, and we’re going to be following you every step of the way, cheering you on as you go forward to make Pirate Nation proud,” Staton said. “Go Pirates!”
Spellings also recorded an abbreviated version of her commencement speech, in which she urged the graduates to celebrate their accomplishment and to thank those who have helped them along the way — parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, husbands, wives, children and cousins.
She also encouraged the graduating Pirates to honor their roots but not to be limited by them. “A lot of you have already ventured far from home, and you’re going to have even more opportunities now,” she said. “The course of your lives may look very different from your parents or grandparents, especially those of you who are the first in your family to get a college education.”
Finally, she said, they should seek success and happiness, look for the good in all people, and take life in stride.
“Life,” she said, “is full of detours and delays and heartache, but also profound gifts and thrilling surprises and wonder at the sheer speed of it all. Only later, when you have some time to look back and reflect, does it all seem to fit together and make sense.”
Outside the stadium, several students expressed both disappointment about the cancellation and optimism for the next stage of their lives and careers.
Communications graduate Kai Jones said his family had driven into town from Goldsboro and would stay to attend the departmental function on Saturday morning. He’s excited for the future, he said, and proud of his time at ECU, especially serving as sports editor for the East Carolinian, which has helped prepare him for a career in journalism.
A group of newly minted Pirate nurses remained despite the rain, sounding air horns and spraying the Silly String they had brought for the ceremony.
“We wanted to cheer and celebrate anyway, and just have some fun,” said Kimber Matney. “We’re disappointed but we’ll still have our nursing event tomorrow morning.”
Matney has accepted a position as a nurse at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital in Roanoke, Virginia.
Lauren Baker, also a graduate of the College of Nursing, had one eye on an open gate into the stadium.
“We’re trying to get on the field anyway,” she said.
Baker, who also received her undergraduate degree at ECU, said her proudest moment — other than graduating — was being accepted into nursing school.
“I’m going to miss seeing my friends all the time, and just all the college memories,” she said.
“This is the happiest day of the year,” said Dr. William Downs, dean of the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, during the departmental ceremony for the University Studies program. “Everybody within a 2-mile radius of ECU is happy!”
He went on to express his gratitude for everyone who has helped the students along their way, pride in their perseverance and hope for their futures. He also asked them to take to heart the ambition of Thomas Harriot, who had the courage as a young college graduate in the 16th century to sail across the Atlantic to Roanoke Island with Sir Walter Raleigh.
“There is no such thing as a timid Pirate,” Downs said.
Austin Mullis, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in University Studies with a thematic core of empowering social change through art, said he is looking for an opportunity to help those less fortunate.
“My most memorable moment at ECU was the alternative break experience I participated in,” he said. “I went to Atlanta and worked with Lost-n-Found, which supports at-risk, homeless LGBT youth.”
Despite the weather, graduates in the College of Engineering and Technology recognition ceremony at Minges Coliseum enjoyed the day. Dr. Hayden Griffin, chair of the Department of Engineering, said the college had reached a milestone: It graduated its 500th engineer since the program started in 2008.
Monica Sasser of Goldsboro received a bachelor’s degree in engineering with a concentration in industrial and systems engineering. She will be working at GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical company in Zebulon in the first of a three-year rotational program in their Future Leaders program.
She will focus on tuning and making sure products are delivered as fast and efficient as possible. “It has to be precise, and automation controls it,” she said.
She is the second Pirate engineer to graduate in her family; her brother, Lance Sasser, graduated in mechanical engineering in December 2015.
Francisco Antonio Bartolo is the first in his Newton Grove family to graduate from college, said his sister, Evelyn, who was making her way to her parents already in the stands. “I wanted to see him walk,” she said. “I feel really proud of him. Both of my parents are immigrants from Mexico, and they’re really proud of him too.”
Logan Williams of Rocky Mount and Kacie Wolcott of Reston, Virginia, graduated with bachelor’s degrees in construction management. While minorities in a male-dominated field, they said they never felt a stigma because they are women. “As long as you can do the work, no one cares,” said Wolcott, whose father is an architect so she grew up visiting construction sites.
Both were involved in ECU’s Women in Construction and Technology organization, which support women students interested in construction and related technologies.
“It’s definitely a good time to be in the field,” Williams said, adding that companies are heavily recruiting women to the workforce.
Williams will be working as a project engineer for T.A. Loving in Goldsboro, while Wolcott will be an assistant project manager with Harvey-Cleary Builders in Bethesda, Maryland.
Nick Mbonu of Raleigh graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s in computer science. While in college, he has owned his own company, working as a concert promoter and social media marketer.
Mbonu said he chose computer science because he wanted a challenge. “And I got one, definitely,” he said. “I’m just very curious to see how things work.”
This year’s graduating class will certainly have a story to tell as they transition into the next stage of their lives.
(See more photos in this multimedia story.)