Dr. Marilyn Sheerer urged East Carolina University graduates to embrace change, to lead and serve others in their search for success in the future.
Sheerer was featured speaker at the 105th ECU spring commencement May 9 in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Chancellor Steve Ballard conferred degrees for more than 3,800 students including approximately 2,795 students who were awarded baccalaureate degrees, and 1,067 graduate students including 79 who received medical degrees from the Brody School of Medicine.
“We’ve worked really hard,” said Emily Toler of Washington, who received a master’s degree in teaching. “I can’t believe it’s over. (Graduation) once seemed like such a long ways off, but now it’s here.”
Sheerer, ECU’s outgoing provost, recognized several outstanding students who embody four themes she asked graduates to consider: self-identity is ever evolving; get out of yourself; be a leader; and avail yourself of opportunities to interact with and learn from people who are different from you.
One of the students recognized was Darla Gunter of Lillington, who graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s of science degree in special education. She will be teaching students with learning disabilities, emotional or behavioral issues and other special needs at Western Harnett High School.
She decided to become a teacher at age 43 with the encouragement of her daughter, Steffani, who graduated in 2010 with a degree in social work from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
Gunter was a substitute teacher in a special education classroom and secretary in the Harnett County Schools for many years. “She said ‘Mom you’ve been in education for so long, why don’t you be a teacher?’ ” Gunter said. “She said ‘years from now, what will you be doing? Sitting behind a desk?’ ”
Gunter took 17 hours of distance education courses at ECU in her first semester while still working. “As cliché as it may sound, it’s never too late,” Gunter said. “I’m 47 now and I feel I have at least 20 years to give.”
Sheerer told graduates “don’t be too quick to decide who or what you are, and always be mindful that you may yet become something else.”
“We have graduates who are getting first degrees today along with those who are getting second or third degrees,” Sheerer said. “As all of us change over the years. We have the chance to reinvent ourselves, to evolve our identities, to embrace leadership and service to a greater extent and to internalize the perspective that being open to difference is essential to successful living.”
Among those celebrating was Lisa Whitehead of Dallas, mother of Justin Whitehead, who received a bachelor’s degree in engineering. She said her son was accepted to seven universities for engineering, but chose ECU. “I have mixed emotions, because it’s my baby graduating,” Lisa Whitehead said. “He did it. He did well. I’m proud and honored. As a mom, you try to hold back the tears, but sometimes you just can’t. He made a good decision to come to ECU.”
Among the graduates were more than 50 members of the inaugural class of the university’s Honors College, which Sheerer helped transition from a program to full college status in 2010. The graduates completed four years of rigorous academic coursework, interdisciplinary seminars, intensive research, pre-professional internships, leadership development, immersive service-learning projects and study-abroad opportunities.
Recognized during the ceremony were university award winners, including Dr. Abbie Brown, a professor of instructional technology in the ECU College of Education, who received the UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching. Brown teaches exclusively online, and is the first online-only professor at ECU to receive one of the state’s highest teaching honors.
David Powers, a member of the Board of Governors, congratulated Brown and invited his students who had never met him to do so after the ceremony. “Dr. Brown’s motto has always been, ‘Be the guide on the side, rather than the sage on the stage,’ ” Powers said.
Also recognized were the five undergraduate students who received the Robert H. Wright Alumni Leadership Award:
Ben Currie McKinzie Jr. of Upper Marlboro, Maryland, who graduated cum laude with a degree in information and computer technology. He will work as a systems administrator and plans to attend graduate school at the University of Baltimore;
Megan Rachel Mehaffey of Clyde, who graduated summa cum laude with dual degrees in chemistry and physics. She will attend graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin;
Hannah Marie Potter of Marshville, who graduated summa cum laude with a degree in multidisciplinary studies after completing a double major in international studies and religious studies;
Juliann Marie Stalls of Williamston, who graduated summa cum laude with a degree in psychology. She will begin doctorate studies in ECU’s clinical health psychology program;
Nicholas Reid Thompson of Chesapeake, Virginia, who graduated summa cum laude with a degree in biochemistry in fall 2013. He is pursuing a master’s degree at the College of William & Mary with plans to enter medical school.
‘READY TO GRADUATE’ New ECU alumni look toward future
Before the ceremony, Tanisha Dixon stood in a shady spot at East Carolina University’s football stadium. The morning breeze blew her purple robe but four large letters affixed to the top of her cap never wavered: ‘Nini.’
“That’s what some people may know me as, on Twitter, Instagram,” Dixon said. “I wanted it to be big so my family could see it.”
Her mother, grandmother, niece and aunt all came to the celebration. “My mom is very excited and happy,” Dixon said. “I’m definitely ready to graduate. It’s going to be good to have a little break.”
Dixon of Maxton, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public health, and on May 19 will start an internship working in HIV and AIDS prevention and other programs at the Robeson County Health Department in Lumberton. She hopes to find a permanent position and apply to graduate school.
‘We pulled it off’
College of Nursing students Chelsea Robinson, Ashley Campbell, Ashley Myrick and Alicia Martin White stood ready to march on the field, cans of Silly String in hand. “I’ve got four of them,” said Robinson of McLean, Virginia.
When asked how the last semester had gone, the four said in unison: “Stressful.”
“With each other, we made it,” said Myrick, of Littleton. “We did it somehow.”
White of Clemmons originally was supposed to graduate in December. Even with her coursework extended, she didn’t change plans to get married in April. “We pulled it off,” she said. “We just went for it.” Her husband is Jake White, who graduated from ECU with a degree in construction management in December 2012.
‘Proud to be a Pirate’
Members of the 2014 graduating class of doctoral of physical therapy students took a group photo before the ceremony to frame and present to faculty members. Each signed the matting for the photo.
Courtney Ross, of Winston-Salem, said the 30 students graduating were tight-knit. She will be moving to Greenville, South Carolina for residency in sports physical therapy. She’s also planning a wedding next May to classmate Izzat Chaaban of Lake Norman. “We met here,” she said. “There are four couples out of 30 of us.”
Classmate Jean Kelly, of Mt. Laurel, New Jersey, said being an undergraduate and graduate student at ECU has been a rewarding experience. “It’s come full circle,” Kelly said. “I’m proud to be standing in front of friends and family today. I’m going to be a doctor. And I’m very proud to be a Pirate.”