Women’s empowerment, sisterhood in the air at Meredith College graduation

sgilman@newsobserver.comMay 3, 2014 

Beneath the gracefully sloped ceiling of the J.S. Dorton Arena at N.C. State Fairgrounds on Saturday night, friends and family cheered as Meredith College awarded degrees to the graduating classes of 2014.

By the numbers: Meredith College conferred 355 degrees to the undergraduate class of 2014, and 115 graduate degrees. Areas of study included bachelor of science, bachelor of arts, master of business and master of education.

Commencement address: Susan Mboya, Zawadi Africa Educational Fund founder and Coca-Cola executive, spoke to the graduates about the definition of female empowerment. Mboya’s educational fund has provided scholarships to more than 230 disadvantaged girls and women from six African countries to study in the U.S. and Canada.

In her speech, Mboya relatedher journey from “a household where women’s empowerment was the order of the day” to a corporate executive, and to a wife and mother who helps other women pursue their education. As an executive, she worked long days, flew all around the world “and I was loving every minute of it.” Then her mother died, and she realized her life needed a priority change. She soon married a politician, had children and “began living the role I had been running away from.”

Through her experiences, she came to define empowerment not as a “prescribed” career path for women, but as the freedom to choose. “You have the power to decide when to pursue the various activities in your life. … Empowerment is having a choice.”

What’s ahead? Graduates are headed in various directions. Interior design major Meg Thedford is moving to Orlando, Fla. to work as a cast member at Disney World. Environmental sustainability major Holly Mills is going to New York City to work for Uncharted Play, a business that makes toys that create usable energy. Education major Laura Pace will teach prekindergarten in Wake County.

Setting: Dusk settled as college provost Matthew Poslusny read the graduates’ names. Undergrads gowned in maroon, Meredith’s color, and graduate students in black, walked across the stage to receive their degrees and be greeted by class adviser Danny Green. On either side of the arena, family and friends clapped and cheered at each name.

Just Meredith: The women’s school is known for being a sisterhood, alumnae said. “It’s a strong bond,” said Mary Howard, a 2012 Meredith graduate. “I don’t have any sisters, so this is my family.” Meredith students aren’t allowed to join sororities, she said, “because (Meredith’s) like a sorority.”

Standout: Rodda Ouma from Nairobi, Kenya, is the fourth member of Mboya’s Zawadi fund to graduate from Meredith. Listed as one of the college’s “strong seniors,” she completed two internships at Metabolon Inc., a biochemical diagnostics company in Research Triangle Park. The chemistry major may head to Texas to work at data analytics company Mu Sigma in Austin or go to graduate school.

“It’s a great feeling,” Ouma said about graduating, as members of the Zawadi fund flocked around her, smiling and hugging her.

Traditions: Meredith college students take great pride in their onyx class rings, which they wear with the college seal facing inward during their time at Meredith and facing outward after graduation, “because now you’re facing the world,” said 2012 alumna Mary O’Bryan.

“Whenever you see someone with that ring, you automatically connect,” Howard added.

The ending ceremony of the night is a candlelit address. Graduates take an electric candle and encircle the floor of the arena in a double line. The overhead lights go out and the graduates turn on their candles.

“We charge you now to take the Meredith light into the world, shining it into the darkness of ignorance, despair, evil and weakness,” said college President Jo Allen. “You are a bright new light in the world. Take that giant step forward into that world and shine.”

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