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Cole challenges graduates to get out of their comfort zone

by Chuck Gordon

More than 250 students awarded degrees at Wingate's fall commencement 

Even as a little girl, Dr. Alisahah Cole understood that she faced serious obstacles in life. A woman of color, she knew, would always have fewer doors open for her and would probably make less money than her peers.

Cole persevered, and today she is vice president and chief community impact officer for Atrium Health, the state’s largest hospital network. She gave graduating students at Wingate’s Fall Commencement on Saturday a lesson in real life that ended with a message of hope.

In a packed Cuddy Arena, 261 students received their degrees from Wingate University. About a third of them crossed the stage as physician assistants or doctors of physical therapy.

It was the University’s third December Commencement, and the first to be held in Cuddy since 1992. The ceremony was moved from the 999-seat Austin Auditorium to the more spacious basketball and volleyball arena to accommodate the growing number of graduates. With total enrollment increasing 37 percent over the past five years, to nearly 3,700 students, Wingate is the fastest-growing independent college or university in North Carolina.

During Saturday’s ceremony, Connor Michael Correll of Indian Trail, Sarah Finch Katz of Wilmington and Dunja Sobot of Backa Palanka, Serbia, each received the H.K. Helms Award, which goes to the graduating seniors with the highest scholastic average.

Correll, who won the top underclassman award in political science last year, is interning for District Court Judge Tripp Helms in Union County before heading to law school at the University of Georgia. Katz, a communications major who has been self-employed selling insurance in the summers, hopes to become an author of children’s books. Sobot earned her top scholastic average as a psychology major while also playing volleyball for the Bulldogs.

The University also bestowed an honorary degree, doctor of humane letters, upon Dr. Paul B. Little, a retired U.S. Army colonel from Anson County.

Aside from PAs and PTs, other students receiving degrees on Saturday included 35 doctors of education, 14 students earning masters in teaching or education, and 83 undergraduates awarded bachelor of science or bachelor of arts degrees. The event also included ceremonial hoodings for those in professional programs.

Dr. Alisahah Cole, Fall Commencement speaker

Many Wingate graduates will go on to work in the field of healthcare, making Cole’s message, not to mention her job, an important one. Cole is especially interested in the topics of health equity and population health. She is responsible for developing and implementing a community health strategy across multiple counties in North and South Carolina.

As a child, Cole lost a grandfather to lung cancer and an aunt to breast cancer. “Because of fear and a lack of trust,” she says, neither interacted with a healthcare system.

Cole came to Charlotte for her residency because Carolinas Medical Center had a program that focused on caring for underserved communities. Many people in those communities understand all too well her message for Wingate graduates: real life is hard and uncomfortable.

“There will be times when you experience challenges and failures, yet you can and you will pull through,” she said. “Lean into the lessons that life will teach you and rely on your family and friends to support you. No one goes through life alone.”

Her own success is testament to the idea that graduates can overcome their challenges. The odds were stacked against her.

“As a highly educated black woman, I still have over a 240% chance of dying from a pregnancy-related issue when compared to my white sisters,” she said. “Being born on the west side of Dayton meant that my life expectancy could be 15 years less than others born in different zip codes. Being raised by a single mother meant that I had a higher risk of dropping out of school and becoming a teenage mother.”

Getting out of her comfort zone helped her succeed. She shared one of her favorite quotes: “A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.”

“Challenge yourselves to get outside of your box,” she said. “Educate yourself about the issues that are facing not just your family and friends but your community as well. Learn about the systems that have historically excluded and marginalized people. Question your own unconscious bias; we all have them. Change only happens when we are insightful about ourselves, and we use that insight to influence the world around us.”

Dr. Paul Little had considerable influence on the world after leaving Wingate Junior College in with an associate degree in the late 1960s. He went on to receive degrees from N.C. State University, the Medical University of South Carolina and East Carolina University before joining the U.S. Army.

Little, a member of the University’s Board of Trustees, served on the staff of the Army Surgeon General at the Pentagon and was the first medical editor at the U.S. Department of Defense media center.

Little’s list of volunteer efforts is lengthy, including longtime service to his church, First Baptist of Wadesboro, for which the Baptist State Convention honored him with its Heritage Award. Little established the Edna Pearle Little Memorial Scholarship, in honor of his mother, the first fine-arts professor at Wingate. Little also received the University’s Alumni Service Award in 2016.

Dec. 15, 2018