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Graduates urged to be bold and authentic, as 416 receive degrees

By Luanne Williams

Wingate University graduates picking up their bachelor’s degrees Tuesday got seven bits of wisdom from the mouths of babes, or more specifically third- through eighth-grade students, via Girls on the Run founder Molly Barker.

The Charlotte native shared bits of her personal story and challenged the Class of 2022, 416 members strong, to live bold and authentic lives, despite the tension she described as two sides of the human experience coin.

“On the one side … is our essence, the unique us, the us that is perfectly ourselves,” Barker said, “and on the other side is this deep desire for belonging so much that we literally and metaphorically photoshop, filter and cover up who we really are, to fit in, to be pretty, or beautiful, rich or buff, athletic or successful – to be all the things society tells us we should be instead of who we really are.”

Speaking to a crowd of thousands on the Academic Quad during a 9 a.m. ceremony, Barker said her encounters with GOTR participants over the past quarter century had helped her learn the following lessons:

(1) Sometimes you will really suck at something, and that’s OK.

“We have to step outside our comfort zone and do things that show us what we are, by showing us what we are not,” Barker said, describing her conversation with a last-place runner in a GOTR 5K who realized that walking, not running, was her forte.

(2) Sometimes being ourselves means being vulnerable and crying in front of people.

(3) Usually, when our heart is in the right place and we are bringing our authentic selves to a project, people really appreciate that, even if the messaging is a little bit off.  

(4) Being yourself can be hard. And self-care matters.

(5) Sometimes in the middle of doing something that will bring you lots of awards and recognition, you discover something that actually brings you joy. Do that, because that’s where your real self lives.

Barker said this lesson came from a GOTR participant who had a dragonfly land on her arm during a 5K and decided that finishing the race with the dragonfly was way more important than running, even though she was the fastest runner on her team and could have won the race.

“Slowing to a baby-step stroll, she eventually completed the three-mile course in about two hours with the dragonfly still there,” Barker said. “The smile on her face was bigger than California.”

(6) We all have superpowers. Sometimes those superpowers will seem weird to other people and sometimes they will be celebrated. Regardless, use them.

(7) It is our true nature to help others when they are hurt or hungry or in need of something.

“At the core of all essence lies compassion and love, but sadly compassion and love sometimes get covered up by competition, fear and separation,” Barker concluded. 

Finding her identity

Barker’s theme of authenticity resonated with new graduate Carla Zuleyma Gomez Laguna of Marshville, who was awarded the Budd E. and Ethel K. Smith Award for her outstanding contribution through leadership of fellow students.

“After being at Wingate, I’m more confident in who I am,” she said. “I was born in Mexico but grew up in America, and there was a time when I wasn’t really connected to my culture. But here I was able to gain faith and find my true identity.”

Gomez Laguna majored in finance and political science, minored in Spanish, was part of the University Honors Program and led the Latin American Student Association, which she will continue to serve as a mentor. She is one of 83 students who received degrees at Wingate today who are the first in their family to attend college.

“From the moment I met Carla during her first semester at Wingate, it was clear she was destined to achieve great things,” said Dr. Steven Hyland, political science professor and Gomez Laguna’s advisor. “She is a leader and visionary who immediately began to identify needs for Latino students on campus and off of it. I wait with anticipation to watch her grow as a professional and community leader.”

Gomez Laguna said Hyland had helped her thrive at Wingate from day one, and that Chris Zieglar, the University’s director of success coaching, had been a continual supporter. She has landed a job as a corporate administrator for Marand Builders in Charlotte.

Winner of the A.F. Hendricks Award, presented to the male graduate who best represents the ideals of scholarship, leadership and service, Ra’Saun Lakeith Elliott said he was shocked to earn the extra recognition.

“A big contribution I didn’t know I was making,” said Elliott, a music performance major who sings bass and baritone. “I was just being me.”

Working on the technical side of productions and as a performer, Elliott was a fixture at events put on both by the Music Department and by other departments. He worked whenever he was needed – late at night, early in the morning, over the summer.

“His dedication to students, faculty, the music department, and the university at large is evident through his work on campus,” said music professor Dr. Jennifer Hough. “His leadership in the music department has been invaluable.”

Elliott, who is from Concord, said Hough was a big reason he wound up at Wingate.

“She just drew me in and made me feel welcome,” he said. “Everywhere else I went to audition, it just felt like business. But coming here to audition at Wingate, it just felt like home. It felt welcoming.”

Elliott will have a role in Matthews Community Theater’s “Sister Act” this summer in between working internships at Covenant Presbyterian and Myers Park United Methodist churches. He plans to take a year away from the classroom and then pursue his master’s degree.

In addition to the bachelor’s degrees awarded Tuesday, the University honored lifetime Wingate trustee Joe Hunter with a Doctor of Humane Letters. A former executive with Wachovia Bank, Hunter has worked with the Cannon Charitable Interests for the past 35 years.

Of the students earning degrees, 60 majored in biology or environmental biology, 42 in exercise science, 41 in psychology and 26 in sport management.

Other awards given during commencement:

  • Felix Kento Grieb, Casey Andrew Mitchell, Logan Raquel Murphy, Noah Alexander Richards, Emily Nicole Roach, Jonas Hørslev Sørensen and Danielle Toman received the H.K. Helms Award, presented to the graduating seniors achieving the highest scholastic average.

  • The C.C. Burris Award, reserved for the graduating senior woman who best represents the ideals of scholarship, leadership and service, went to Erin Hope Griffin of Waxhaw.

  • Allison Faith Barbee of Concord earned the Fred H. Allen Award, presented to the graduating senior judged to have exhibited outstanding Christian leadership and to have been involved in significant Christian service projects.

  • Soeren Nygaard of Denmark won the Jerry and Alice Surratt Award, reserved for the graduating senior who has made the most significant contributions in the area of international education through scholarship and service.

Wingate’s Academic Quad will be the site for a second commencement ceremony on Wednesday at 9 a.m., when graduate degrees are conferred. 

A complete list of students eligible to walk in this week’s ceremonies is available on the registrar’s page.

May 17, 2022