As they waited to receive their diplomas on Saturday, members of William Peace University’s class of 2015 looked back on the ways in which they had changed during their years at college.
“This place has transformed us,” senior class speaker Katharine “Katie” Barrett told the crowd gathered for commencement beneath the magnolias and pin oaks of the University Green. “And I like to think we have transformed it, too.”
In fact, Peace is not the same college it was when the class of 2015 came in.
Barrett and her classmates would turn out to be the last all-female class admitted to Peace, founded in 1857 as Peace Institute, where boys and girls got a primary education and young women were schooled from high school to college. It later became a two-year all-women’s college. It added four-year degrees in the 1990s.
The most recent and, some say, the biggest changes came when members of this graduating class were sophomores. That’s when Peace began admitting male students, and the school changed its name to William Peace University. Enrollment increased 20 percent. The number of full-time professors dropped by 40 percent, and the use of adjuncts soared.
The moves angered some students, faculty and alumni, who felt the school’s traditions and reputation were being sacrificed. There were angry, tearful protests and threats of withholding financial support.
Last fall, when Debra Townsley, who had been president of Peace since 2010, announced she would retire this summer, some students tossed roses into the fountain on the green to celebrate.
By Saturday, all that turmoil seemed just another part of the story of their matriculation, something they had figured out how to deal with, along with homesickness, eight-page papers and exams.
And anyway, there were so many sweet memories, a million tiny moments that somehow turned into years.
“If I could go back, I would do it all again,” said graduate Donielle Fonville, who transferred to Peace from Wake Technical Community College to get a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Like many of her classmates, Fonville liked the intimacy of Peace, which is still small enough that professors and students can get to know one another, and students form friendships that last for life.
Fonville, who lives in Raleigh, is thinking of going on to graduate school to study library science.
Graduate Jenny Taylor, who studied political science, communication and history, is looking at law school.
Others talked about internships they would serve this summer, or jobs they were excited to start.
Whatever they do next, commencement speaker Dr. Assad Meymandi told the 222 graduates, let it start with an awareness every morning when they wake “that you are children of God.”
Meymandi, a Raleigh psychiatrist and philanthropist, said starting each day with that acknowledgment would help the students lead a moral and joyful life, one in which they continue to grow, and are able to show love for others and for themselves.
Trying to decide what advice he could give to his classmates, valedictorian Michael Wolf said he had watched YouTube videos of graduation speeches looking for inspiration. Finally, he began to think of the ways he had been inspired to be a better person by his fellow students and those who teach or work on the campus that has been his world for the past few years, since he transferred in. He called them out by name and gift: the good student, the person who smiles at everyone he meets.
“Every one of you has a spark that is unique to you,” he said, and thanked them for sharing it with him. Now, he said, “Share that spark with the rest of the world.”