Crowds were limited, chairs were distanced, but masks couldn’t hide the smiles over the weekend when, for the first time in 17 months, Wingate University graduates got a proper send-off, complete with handshakes, hugs from family and friends and more than a few hallelujahs.
“This was wonderful,” said Erica Jones, mother of master of sport management graduate and former Bulldog football player Kameron Johnson. Johnson described himself as “relieved from all the stress,” and said he was thrilled to have his family share the milestone. To accommodate guests while keeping within the Covid capacity guidelines in effect during the spring semester, the University held four separate ceremonies on Wingate’s Academic Quad.
Johnson was among 138 graduate students whose degrees were celebrated Friday morning. Across the quad, Howard Gaines, one of 82 brand new doctors of pharmacy and a student at Wingate’s Hendersonville campus, shared the joy.
“The best part of the ceremony is being able to graduate in person with my friends and my family and be surrounded by all these successful people,” said a smiling Gaines, who is headed to officer training at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama in August. Gaines earned an Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship to help fund pharmacy school. In return, he’ll serve at least three years as a pharmacist in the military.
“I’m ready to face these new challenges and provide optimum care for the men and women in the service,” he said.
Although graduates didn’t hear from featured speaker Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, during the ceremony (her portion had been pre-recorded as part of a video sent to students late last week), they did get a word from Joe Patterson, chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees, Provost Jeff Frederick and President Rhett Brown.
Brown recapped Cohen’s main points — believe in yourself, be uncomfortable and listen more — adding his take on each. He said the purpose of higher education, defined by some as “the creation and dissemination of knowledge,” has a deeper meaning at Wingate.
“It has more to do with who we are and what we do with our lives,” Brown said, as he reminded students of the University’s motto of Faith, Knowledge, Service. “Our guiding purpose is to change lives for the better with a knowledge that informs and integrates our faith and ultimately leads to a life of service.”
Thomasville resident Shaniqua McNeil, who received her psychology degree on Saturday morning, plans to put her knowledge to use serving autistic children. She said that althought getting an education in the midst of a pandemic was challenging, her family and her faith in God carried her through.
Provost Frederick commended graduates for their tenacity and reminded them that although the past year has seemed “unlike anything previously confronted,” some parallels can be drawn to the 1918 outbreak of the Spanish flu. In fact, he said every generation is forever changed by their lived experiences.
“As the writer Norman MacLean notes, life ‘is not a work of art’ and some moments cannot last. But the resilience and the steadfastness and the persistence and the excellence that got you here today will live on as you write the rest of your story,” Frederick said. “You have prevailed. You are a graduate. Well done.”
Patterson urged the new grads to focus forward, remembering that where they are going is more important than where they have been.
Graduates of the Cannon College of Arts and Sciences got an additional word of wisdom Saturday morning from retiring Vice President and Athletic Director Steve Poston, who was awarded an honorary doctorate.
A 50-year veteran employee who has served in a variety of capacities, Poston said he is often asked how he stayed at one place for so long.
“I was embraced by a community that cared about me, that supported me, that loved me, and at times, when I needed it, corrected me,” Poston said, suggesting that graduates had found the same kind of nurturing environment.
In addition to praising Poston as someone who “never said no to any task that would benefit the university,” Brown recognized Don Merrill, retiring dean of the Cannon College of Arts and Sciences, for his 41 years of “wholehearted service.”
Brown also announced winners of faculty and student awards, all of whom had been featured in the pre-commencement video.
Some 250 undergraduates picked up their degrees Saturday morning, with another 230 crossing the stage that afternoon.
On Sunday morning, the University hosted 170 graduates who had earned their degrees in 2020, but had their commencement postponed an entire year. As Cohen had put it in her address, these were graduates who “had a lot less pomp due to the circumstances.”
Patterson said he was impressed by the number of alumni who stopped what they were doing to come home to Wingate to be honored. To inspire them, he shared stories from the lives of two poets — Maya Angelou and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow — who, he pointed out, did not let things beyond their control define their lives.
Also at Sunday’s event, Brown announced winners of 2020 faculty and student awards and recognized Robert Supernaw, founding dean of the School of Pharmacy, who served as mace bearer. Supernaw retired last year.
Reminding students of a speech given by alumnus and trustee Audley Bell just as many of them began their time at Wingate in 2016, President Brown said “Love yourself, trust yourself and believe in yourself. The world is indeed waiting for you, and we have never needed you more.”
Having to wait a year for their commencement didn’t seem to dampen graduates’ excitement.
“During a pandemic, all things are possible as long as you don’t quit,” said Robert Wingate, who earned his doctor of education in educational leadership. An assistant principal at Harding University High School in Charlotte, Wingate said that he was determined to come back for his ceremony.
“If I had to wait two years to walk, it didn’t matter, I was coming back. It was well worth the wait,” he said.
Cynthia Newton of Wadesboro graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor of liberal studies in educational studies and appreciated the belated ceremony.
“I feel like my accomplishments could finally be displayed after we worked so hard,” she said.
Even though Erin November of Charlotte had already moved on to Campbell University School of Law, she made a point to come back to collect her bachelor of science degree in political science.
“It feels like closure, about completing what you started,” November said.
May 16, 2021