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Girls on the Run founder, accomplished educator to speak at Commencement

By Luanne Williams

Wingate University undergraduates will hear from Girls on the Run International founder Molly Barker at their May 17 Commencement. Graduate students, who cross the stage on May 18, will get advice from award-winning education champion Russell Booker.

An Ashoka Fellow and globally recognized leader in girls’ education and development, Barker has a background in social work, counseling and teaching. She started Girls on the Run in 1996 with 13 girls at Charlotte Country Day School. It has since grown to include groups in 200-plus cities across every state in the country and helped more than 2.1 million girls unleash their potential.

The 10-week, after-school program helps girls in third- through eighth-grade develop essential social, emotional and physical skills to navigate life and escape what Barker calls the “girl box.” The program culminates with girls making a difference in their communities through service projects and celebratory 5K events. (More than 330 5Ks are held each year.)

The choice of Barker, an accomplished triathlete, for a commencement speaker is particularly fitting for Wingate this year, just six months after the University’s inaugural women’s triathlon team placed second nationally and triathlete Finja Schierl brought home the individual gold medal. A week later, Wingate’s women’s cross country team finished fifth in the nation. Additionally, a number of Wingate’s female students serve as Girls on the Run coaches.

The author of several books, Barker is a recipient of the presidential Point of Light Award and has been named a Distinguished Alumna at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

Dr. Russell W. Booker recently retired as superintendent of Spartanburg County School District 7 after 28 years in education. Since retiring, he has taken on two influential roles within South Carolina’s Spartanburg community: He is the executive director of the Spartanburg Academic Movement, a nonprofit committed to helping young people achieve academic and life success, and is also president of One Acorn, a company he and his wife founded to help organizations, individuals and communities fulfill their potential through authentic, values-based leadership. 

A member of the Wingate University Board of Trustees, Booker earned his bachelor of science degree in education from Wingate in 1991 and received his doctorate from the University of South Carolina.

In 2015 he was named South Carolina’s Superintendent of the Year. Before joining District 7, he served as the Superintendent of York School District 1 and was honored by the York Chamber of Commerce with the 2008 Citizenship Service Award. The same year, Wingate recognized him as an Outstanding Young Alumnus.

In 2013, the Urban League of the Upstate presented Booker with the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Humanitarian Award. In 2015, he was inducted into the South Atlantic Conference Hall of Fame as a Distinguished Alumnus, and in 2016, he received the Heritage Committee Award from the Spartanburg African American Heritage Committee. He was awarded the Abernathy-White Humanitarian Award in 2019, and in 2020 he received the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest civilian honor.

Commencement ceremonies, set for 9 a.m. both days, will be held on the Academic Quad, weather permitting. Learn more about Commencement.

April 12, 2022