DURHAM — N.C. Central University’s graduation exercises Saturday capped off a year of milestones for the school: its first Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference basketball championship, the first school year with its first female chancellor, and the largest graduating class ever.
Those were just a few of the reasons for celebration during the 8 a.m. ceremony that packed O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium. Speakers highlighted the university’s latest successes as well as those of individual students – many of whom overcame the odds to earn their bachelor’s degrees.
Despite pleas from the chancellor to “refrain from excessive celebration,” many of the family members and friends gathered in the bleachers couldn’t contain their joy. Some blew air horns or whistles. Many shouted their graduate’s name as he crossed the stage.
One of the students even did a victory dance as he strode offstage in a pair of spray-painted gold shoes. With so many graduates to honor, the festivities stretched on for more than three hours.
By the numbers: The university honored 680 bachelor’s degree recipients Saturday, the highest number in its history. About 370 students from Central’s graduate and professional schools were honored in a separate ceremony Friday.
The weather: Clouds hovered over the stadium as the ceremony began, prompting commencement speaker Lezli Baskerville to encourage the crowd to do a rain dance. She even sang out a couple of lines of “Ain’t Gonna Rain No More.”
It worked. By the time the students lined up for their diplomas, the sun broke through.
Commencement address: Baskerville, a civil rights attorney, leads the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education and is a leading advocate for historically black colleges and universities.
She charged the graduates to get involved in activism – to use their new talents and skills in the fight against poverty, climate change and “voter suppression.”
She pointed out that 2014 marks the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the integration of public schools. And she criticized new voter ID laws recently passed in North Carolina and other states.
“Many of the struggles for which our forefathers fought are rearing their ugly heads again,” she said, adding that the graduates must “take some of your time and talent to fight these problems.”
Baskerville said that too many of today’s young people are leaving school with immense knowledge but “low caring and compassion quotients.”
“Take with you all the wonderful experiences you had … but more importantly, take the drive for change,” she said.
The political tone of Baskerville’s address drew a few gripes on the event’s official Twitter hashtag, #nccu2014. Some tweeted that they wished the speech had been more about the graduates.
Success stories: In her first commencement remarks since becoming chancellor last year, Debra Saunders-White singled out two students for their successes. Daniel Ball, receiving a bachelor’s degree in social work, grew up in foster care in coastal North Carolina. He battled homelessness and substance abuse as a young adult before winding up in prison. When he was released, he headed straight for community college and is now on his way to UNC-Chapel Hill for a master’s degree in social work.
Saunders-White also recognized computer information systems major Migela Evans, who’s heading to Seattle for a job at Microsoft – “the corporation she’s wanted to work for since high school.”
A shout-out to the others: Senior class president Danielle Brown, a criminal justice major, took a moment during her remarks to recognize classmates who didn’t make it to graduation. The class of 2014 had 680 graduates but started out with 1,128 freshmen.
“This pinnacle moment is for them as well,” she said.
Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter