Friends and family cheered as ECU graduates received their degrees at East Carolina University's annual spring commencement, May 6. Commencement speaker Ray Mabus, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, urged graduates to do something bigger than themselves by undertaking service to their schools, their communities, their nation or their world. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

COMMENCEMENT 2011: 'Do something bigger than yourself'

By Jeannine Manning Hutson and Doug Boyd
ECU News Services

Since she was in second grade, Jammie Lynn McCurry has wanted to be a teacher.

“I love helping others. I love teaching. I love seeing a child have their ‘ah-ha’ moment when you’ve worked so hard with them to get it.  It’s just a wonderful experience,” she said.  

McCurry interned with Joann Howard in her kindergarten class at Creekside Elementary School in Winterville, where McCurry will be working as a substitute teacher for the rest of the school’s year.

“Being here at ECU has reaffirmed my desire and need to be a teacher,” said McCurry, who graduated magna cum laude with degrees in elementary education and special education. “I fell in love with ECU when my older sister Jessica (Class of 2008) was here. I knew this was the only place for me,” said McCurry of Belmont.

McCurry was one of 3,590 graduates honored during East Carolina University’s 102nd spring commencement held May 6. The graduates included 69 doctors of medicine, 15 doctors of philosophy, five doctors of education, and 28 doctors of physical therapy. Chancellor Steve Ballard conferred the graduates’ degrees on a clear, cool morning at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.  
During his address to the graduates, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus told graduates that they don’t have to join the military to serve their country.  

Mabus, who oversees operations aimed at apprehending piracy on the high seas, among many other duties, acknowledged that not all buccaneers are bad.
Mabus urged graduates to make this country better, during ECU's commencement ceremony May 6. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)
“In my world, the Navy takes out pirates. This is the only time and the only context you’re going to hear this: Go Pirates! Arrghh,” Mabus said to cheers from the crowd.

He asked the graduates to thank their family members who had helped make this day possible.  

“It’s important to remember those who in a broader sense make days like this possible. Like you, Sunday night I watched the president’s announcement and gave thanks for our brave men and women in uniform,” he said.

“A lot of you graduating today were probably in middle school on 9-11 so this conflict, this world is what you’ve grown up with. And I’m glad this chapter is closed,” he said to applause from the crowd.

 “Thousands of Americans serve in uniform and every single one are just as professional as those who carried out last weekend’s mission,” he said. “For their service we should be grateful. Less than one percent of Americans wear the uniform of our country.”

Mabus is the 75th United States Secretary of the Navy. As secretary, he leads America’s Navy and Marine Corps and is responsible for an annual budget in excess of $150 billion and almost 900,000 people.   

He told the graduates about the 20,000 Marines serving in Helmand Province in Afghanistan today; many are from Camp Lejeune, “right down the road from here.” Of those who have served, some have made the ultimate sacrifice, Mabus said, including Marine Corps Sgt. David Smith, Class of 2010, who was killed in Helmand Province in January 2010.  

“He was one of your own. He’s one of our own,” he said. “Those who serve are your friends. Those who serve are your brothers and your sisters whether you know them or not. They are making a difference, doing something beyond themselves.”

“There are many ways you can make this country better. Service to country and to North Carolina was one of the founding principles of East Carolina University and remains one of your strongest characteristics today,” said Mabus.

More than 100 years ago, ECU was founded as a teachers’ training college, he said, and today, ECU produces more teachers than any university in the state.

“Some of you in a few months will be standing alone and unafraid in front of one of the scariest things imaginable, a classroom full of eight-year-olds,” he said to laughs and cheers from the audience.

The school’s dedication to service carried over to the Second World War when the university welcomed veterans to campus, he said. They would later become known as “The Greatest Generation.”

“You’re the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of that Greatest Generation. Your generation has the same potential to change America, to change the world like they did,” he said.

“If you’re the next greatest generation we produce, and if your accomplishments will be held 60 or 70 years from now, it’s up to you,” Mabus said. “There’s no end of things to do. We need teachers educated here at ECU to teach the generations of leaders who will follow. We need doctors, nurses and health care professionals from ECU to heal the injured in our country. We need the biologists and coastal scientists from ECU to heal the planet…. How will you join them?”

He said, “I’m asking you to do something bigger than yourself, do something outside of yourself. Do something to give back to this unique country of ours. Do something to help people that you may never know and who may never know what you have done.”

There’s nothing wrong with making money in your chosen profession, he said. “But at the end of your life, it’s not going to be about the money or the stuff that you’ve accumulated. I’ve never seen a hearse with a U-Haul on the back. The important things will be the people who you touch, the lives you’ve made better, the futures you made bright,” Mabus said.

Also during the commencement ceremony, special awards were presented. Four graduating seniors received the 2011 Robert H. Wright Award, which recognizes academic achievement, service and leadership.

The recipients are Brittany Leigh Carr of Mount Olive, double major in biology and Asian studies, who will attend ECU’s Brody School of Medicine upon graduation; Deepak Ravindranathan of Calabash, double major in biochemistry and chemistry, who will attend medical school; Parteek Singla of Greenville, biology major, who will attend ECU’s Brody School of Medicine; Anna Elizabeth Smith of Oakboro, biomedical engineering major, who will enter the engineering field upon graduation and pursue a master’s degree.

Atul Bhula representing the University of North Carolina Board of Governors recognized John Howard III, associate professor in the School of Communication, with the UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest award given by the university. Howard received a commemorative bronze medal and a cash prize. Howard has taught at ECU since August 2003.

But the day was primarily about the graduates and celebrating the accomplishments with their family and friends.

“It’s a super day,” said Tyler Kitchens, graduating with degrees in Hispanic studies and communication. “It’s a culmination of four years of hard work. While I’m going to be sad to leave, I’m definitely happy to be here.”

Several graduates felt a tinge of sadness to be leaving good times and good friends.

“I’ve had the best time ever since I came here,” said Michelle Burris of Mechanicsburg, Pa., as her mother videotaped her. Burris is graduating with a degree in accounting and plans to pursue a master’s of business administration degree. “If I didn’t have great roommates, I don’t think I would have made it through college.”

Before the ceremonies began, graduates of the Brody School of Medicine gathered with other master’s and doctoral students beneath the south stands of the stadium.

“It’s exhilarating,” said Nancy Shinouda of Roanoke Rapids. “It’s basically the best day so far. We’ve worked really hard to get this far.”

Now that she’s completed medical school, Shinouda is headed to Memphis, Tenn., for residency training in internal medicine and pediatrics. She hopes to be a hospitalist and praised the medical education she received at ECU.

“I feel like I’m very prepared for anything I’ll be doing in the future,” she said.

During the event, Dr. David Weismiller, a family physician and associate provost, heard calls for a doctor and rushed from the field into the stands to attend a spectator who fell ill. ECU personnel helped her out of the stands to a cooler, shady area.

Also graduating Friday was Meagan Tedeschi-Capers, 25, with bachelor of science degree in criminal justice.

During her years at ECU, she was diagnosed with Pseudotumor cerebri, also known as intracranial hypertension. “There’s no cure. It’s rare and different for everyone. It’s an overproduction of spinal fluid and it puts pressure on your optic nerve. I thought I had a brain tumor. It got so bad that I couldn’t get up and go to class,” she said.

After a year of trial and error with medication directed by her team of physicians followed by two surgeries and two medical leaves, she returned to class at ECU at the encouragement of her faculty advisor, LaTonya Gaskins in the College of Human Ecology.

“I lost two and one-half years,” Tedeschi-Capers said. “Ms. Gaskins helped me. If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t have come back to ECU. She helped steer me on the right track.”

Now Tedeschi-Capers, who has been working in the social work field for four years as she completed her degree, has been accepted into graduate programs in social work and rehabilitation studies at ECU and she is trying to decide which program to enter in the fall.

 She proudly said she made all A’s after she was readmitted to ECU. “There was a lot that made me not want to come back – the medical bills and the stress of it all. But I’m glad that I came back to finish,” she said. “I did things that I didn’t even think that I was capable of.”

# # #

Related stories

MEDICAL GRADUATES: See images from the Brody convocation

FIRST GRADUATE: 'Long journey' ends for Smith, his family

MIRACLE MILESTONE: Early graduation ceremony includes mom