The heavens smiled on N.C. Central University’s 125th commencement exercises Saturday morning.
Just as university Chancellor Debra Saunders-White spoke the words conferring their degrees, sunlight broke through an overcast sky and bathed the 660 graduates in a warm glow.
The clouds did come back, but by the time all 660 had heard their names called and trooped across the stage for a diploma cover and a Saunders-White handshake, the sky had cleared and the new NCCU Eagle alumni had a brightened day for joining their families and friends outside O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium.
And by then, they had heard the chancellor and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the commencement speaker, bid them to go forth and make the world a better place for all people.
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“You have the ability to completely change the world,” Saunders-White said. “Eagles ... you only know how to soar.”
By the numbers: NCCU awarded 660 baccalaureate degrees on Saturday. Two hundred and 10 graduate degrees and 158 law degrees were presented in a separate ceremony on Friday.
Commencement address: Duncan told the graduates that, while the “life chances” for college graduates have in recent years “gone way up,” for those without college education prospects “are headed in the opposite direction.”
Duncan pointed out that income disparity is rising within and across racial groups, that neighborhoods are increasingly segregated by race and class and the achievement gap between children from rich and poor families is widening.
“None of this should be acceptable to any of us,” he said. The national result is $500 billion a year in lost human potential, “lives stunted and squandered” but “increasingly invisible” to the educated and well off, he said.
“We cannot escape this brutal reality,” Duncan said. “I am convinced this is the central problem that all of us have to solve together.
“The most vital attribute in the world you’re about to enter is not critical thinking or fluency in another language,” Duncan said. “It’s about whether you’re able to see the world through another’s eyes.
“The key factor of success for any society going forward is what percentage of its people are change-makers,” he said. “It’s the new literacy, and empathy is the foundation of that new way of being.”
Duncan mentioned that President Barack Obama wants the United States to “once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world” and said historically black colleges and universities such as NCCU are vital to meeting that goal.
“We need this university and all HBCUs not just to survive but to thrive going forward if we hope to have both stronger communities and a stronger nation,” Duncan said.
In remembrance: One of Saturday’s diplomas was a posthumous award. Greensboro senior Chekeria R. Reid, a recreation administration major, was killed in a March 31 traffic accident in Durham. Reid, who had planned a career in sports management, was manager of the football and women’s basketball teams and the 100 Black Women service organization on campus. Reid’s brother, Joshua, accepted the university trustees’ proclamation of her award.
Tradition: Saunders-White chose graduate Darryl D. Lewis of Rocky Mount for her customary telling of “one Eagle’s journey to commencement.” Lewis, she said, earned a bachelor of science in pharmaceutical sciences while minoring in chemistry and Spanish; interned N.C. State and the Ohio State universities; and worked as a Walgreen’s pharmacy technician. “He is truly walking in the footsteps of our founder,” Saunders-White said, referring to university founder James E. Shepard, a pharmacist himself.
Going forward: Once NCCU’s seniors had become NCCU graduates, they were ceremonially inducted into the alumni association with a reminder that as Eagle graduates they now had a responsibility for “protecting this nest.”
That, said Association President Calvin Kearney, means volunteering for the alumni day of service, hosting at university programs, recruiting new students “or sending a check.”
In the crowd: Graduate Tiana Glover’s relatives arrived early for the 8 a.m. ceremonies and had first-row seats to hold up their sign, with “Congrats Tiana” on brilliant yellow poster board.
Glover was graduating cum laude in communications, said her aunt, Shielda Rodgers of Durham, who was with her daughter, Nia Rodgers, and Glover’s mother, Setonya Scotton from Siler City.
“She made this for us,” Rodgers said. “It shows her advertising skills.”
Cum laude criminal justice graduate Shani Nicholson’s mother, Tembila Covington from Winston-Salem, and father and stepmother, Richard and Pamela Nicholson of Rockingham, sat with a “Congrats” balloon and rose bouquet and more than a dozen other relatives from as far off as California.
“It takes a village,” Covington said.
Many of the maroon-robed graduates decorated the tops of their mortarboard hats for the occasion. Some with glitter, some with colorful patterns, some with artwork and some with slogans such as “College NCCU 2015,” “To God be the glory,” “I’m an outlaw,” “The best is yet to come” and “Danger: Educated black man.”