SBA’s McMahon delivers commencement message

Fireworks flew and tassels turned on a beautiful spring night in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium as 5,479 students graduated from East Carolina University on May 4.

The fireworks capped off a new format for ECU’s 109th spring commencement ceremony, which was held in the evening for the first time, with departmental ceremonies throughout the day on Friday and Saturday. Also new this year was Thursday night’s Grad Bash 2K18, a festival-style celebration for graduates, their families and the community in Greenville’s Uptown District with an estimated 2,500 attendees.

New this year was Thursday night’s Grad Bash 2K18, a festival-style celebration for graduates, their families and the community in downtown Greenville.

New this year was Thursday night’s Grad Bash 2K18, a festival-style celebration for graduates, their families and the community in downtown Greenville. (Photos by Cliff Hollis, Rhett Butler and Cole Dittmer.)

“Grad Bash was a lot of fun,” said Jessica Short, who received her bachelor of science in hospitality management from the College of Business. “It’s great that they did it, and it was really nice having all the different vendors and activities.”

Short said her favorite part of the event was the band — Spare Change. “They were awesome, and they played all kinds of covers,” she said.

Spare Change plays at Grad Bash 2K18.

Spare Change plays at Grad Bash 2K18.

At the evening ceremony, Chancellor Cecil Staton congratulated the graduates on their accomplishment and encouraged them to make a difference. “Today you become a part of the history and legacy of this great university,” he said. “We are counting on you to show us the way to a productive and meaningful future for our communities, our nation and even the world.”

Chancellor Cecil Staton

Chancellor Cecil Staton

Joining Staton in greeting the graduates were La’Quon Rogers, SGA president; Dr. John Stiller, chair of the faculty; Kieran Shanahan, chair of the ECU Board of Trustees; and David Powers of the UNC Board of Governors, who presented the BOG’s 2018 Award for Excellence in Teaching to Dr. Jami Rhodes, associate professor of voice in the School of Music.

Introducing keynote speaker Linda McMahon, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, Staton said, “Today we are honored to have with us one of our own ECU Pirates, an eastern North Carolina success story, a public figure working and advocating on behalf of the 30 million small businesses in the United States.”

McMahon, a native of New Bern, earned her bachelor’s degree in French and her teaching certification at ECU, and went on to become the co-founder and chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment.

In recognition of her leadership, accomplishments and service, Staton awarded McMahon an honorary doctorate of humanities degree, as approved by the ECU Board of Trustees.

Chancellor Cecil Staton honors Linda McMahon with a honorary doctor of humanities degree.

Chancellor Cecil Staton honors Linda McMahon with a honorary doctor of humanities degree.

“I’m honored and humbled to share this special day with you,” McMahon said. “I look at your faces and see myself 49 years ago sitting as part of this sea of caps and gowns.”

McMahon was a newlywed when she arrived as a freshman, and she and husband Vince will celebrate 52 years of marriage this August.

Linda McMahon

Linda McMahon delivers the commencement keynote address.

She said she’s taken a lot of risks and had some failures amid success. She said she always asks questions because she likes to learn how things work. “Challenge the status quo. At work, treat everyday as if it’s your first day on the job,” McMahon said. “Your success will come from doing something better, smarter and more innovative than what’s been done before.”

She encouraged graduates to “find your passion, play to your strengths and never lose your curiosity. I think these apply to business or any path you take. While you can’t script your life, your values will drive your narrative.”

For the graduates, the ceremony dredged up a range of emotions, from joy and pride to nostalgia and anxiety.

Graduates cheer during the ceremony.

Graduates cheer during the ceremony.

“It’s really bittersweet for me,” said Toni Abernathy as she led the biology graduates into Wright Auditorium for their departmental ceremony. “It feels like just yesterday that I was in Garrett as a freshman — it’s hard to believe it has really been four years.”

Abernathy, an environmental educator, will work at a science center in her hometown of Hickory before starting work on a master’s degree next spring.

At the other end of that line was Denise Emilia Zangwill, who has followed a long and winding road to college graduation. “I started in 2006, and I was on and off of school,” she said. “Now I’m married and have two children at 31 years old, and this is a really big day. I was getting emotional walking down this hall. I’m just really excited, and I’m going to be starting my master’s here this fall.”

After attending three other schools, “I fell in love with this campus, and the people here are so friendly,” she said. “It’s a community that sticks together and helps each other through class, keeping you motivated and encouraged. …. Being a non-traditional student, that can be more challenging, but I fit right in and made some of the best friends I’ll keep forever.”

Hannah L’Esperance, who said she’s excited about the evening ceremony and the fireworks, was surprised by family members with a little prank involving life-size printouts of her face.

Hannah L'Esperance, center, is surrounded by people wearing her face before the hospitality management departmental ceremony in Brody.

Hannah L’Esperance, center, is surrounded by people wearing her face before the hospitality management departmental ceremony in Brody.

“I was taking a picture with my friend, and my mom stuck it in the back behind us,” she said. “And I was like, wait, someone photobombed us … and it’s me. We did that at my grandmother’s birthday party, so that’s where they got the idea.”

New graduates Danielle Torrone and Taylor Maleska stopped to take photos with fireworks in the background while walking off the field.

Both said they liked the ceremony’s later start because it gave family the opportunity to travel without taking off an entire day’s work, a chance to sleep in and time to get ready for the event. “The fireworks were definitely cool,” Torrone said.   


A Pirate’s Life: Graduate Stories

Joseph Berger (Submitted photo)

Joseph Berger (Submitted photo)

Joseph Berger

At 24, Joseph Berger changed his career path from information technology to nursing after his father was diagnosed with leukemia.

“During that time, my sisters and I were all going through a rough time,” he said. “The nurses helped my dad a lot but they also helped my sisters and I out a lot. I decided that I wanted to return that favor and help other families.”

While learning to check vital signs during his first semester in the College of Nursing at ECU, his lab partner noticed he had high blood pressure, which was then confirmed by his lab instructor who sent him to the doctor. A physician on main campus prescribed him anti-hypertensive medication, but the experience also drove him to change his eating habits and start exercising.

“I decided that I didn’t like being in my early 20s and have to take a daily medication already, especially for something I could prevent through modifying my lifestyle,” he said. “I was also seeing in clinical the end result of long term effects of having these chronic illnesses and diseases. I didn’t want to end up like that. I also realized that being a nurse I’m going to be taking care of other people and how am I supposed to take care of them when I don’t even take care of my own health? I needed to take care of myself before I could care for others.”

He reached his goal after a year of eating healthier, running and lifting weights, losing 175 pounds. His blood pressure returned to normal limits and he was able to come off the medication.

Joseph plans to continue living in Greenville after graduation and has accepted a position working at Vidant Beaufort Hospital in Washington.

– by Natalie Sayewich

Melissa Hardee (Submitted photo)

Melissa Hardee (Submitted photo)

Melissa Hardee

Melissa Hardee’s career change from public school teacher to social worker means she will still be able to work with children and adolescents in Johnston County.

She had been a teacher in the Johnston County Public Schools for eight years when she applied to ECU’s part-time master of social work degree program.

But it was during only her second year of teaching that a little boy helped lay the foundation for her new degree.

“I had a student who touched my heart,” she said. “His home life was difficult. He began acting out in ways that were hurtful to other students. I took the time to investigate the reasons for his behavior. I called his mother and she cried and cried on the phone. She explained the abuse he had watched her endure over the years by his stepfather. My heart was broken and I wanted to help this mother and my student.”

Hardee had only been out of college for two years back then, so she decided to wait. But in 2014, she began to search for a program that would be flexible for her full-time work schedule.

“I found ECU and am forever grateful because I will be able to serve in a role where I will make a difference in the lives of many students,” Hardee said. “My dreams and passions are with children and adolescents and I am beyond excited to begin a career serving students in North Carolina.”

Hardee lives in Clayton with her son, Sean, who is 16. Sean will be cheering her on at commencement Friday along with her mom, dad, boyfriend, oldest brother, sister-in-law and nephew.

While she was on campus for orientation, to meet with professors or to do group work, she took most of her ECU classes part-time at Craven Community College. The rest were online.

Returning for a master’s degree as a single mom while working has been a challenge, but definitely rewarding, she said.   

“Stick with it. It’ll all be worth it in the end,” Hardee said. “I am really excited to graduate and get back out working full time in a career that I love.”

– by Crystal Baity

Kaleigh Launsby accepts her medallion at EC Scholars recognition ceremony. (Photo by Cole Dittmer)

Kaleigh Launsby (Photo by Cole Dittmer)

Kaleigh Launsby

A first-generation college student, EC Scholar Kaleigh Launsby isn’t merely graduating with her BSBA in finance in three years — she’s graduating summa cum laude, and will graduate with her MBA and graduate degree in data analytics from ECU in one more year.

“I’ve always been a very driven person,” Launsby said. “My goal when I came to college was to graduate magna cum laude, and I just found out that I will be graduating summa cum laude.”

Launsby credits the Honors College with helping her finish in three years because she was able to waive her credit hour restrictions, embarked on a transformative study abroad trip to Costa Rica in 2017, and was exposed to other living-learning experiences and internships through the college.

“In high school, I was completely unaware of the travel experiences I would have as a college student,” she said.

Along with her heavy course load and travels, Launsby also found time to assist several research projects, including working with Dr. Ericka Lawrence, associate professor of management in ECU’s College of Business, on a project titled “An Examination of Factors that Influence Entrepreneurial Intentions and Outcomes of Eastern North Carolina Entrepreneurs.” Her most significant contribution to this project was designing a Business Boot Camp held in partnership with the Minority and Women Business Enterprise of Greenville. The course was presented to local business owners with hopes of improving their future financial abilities and outcomes.

Her own Honors College research project, “College Students’ Personal Finance Skills and the Role of External Influences,” garnered a Scholarly Activity Awards for Students. Launsby hopes to have her work published while in graduate school.

Although she is not exactly sure what the future holds after graduate school, Launsby’s goals are lofty.

“I’ve never been a person to have a finite plan. I find them too restrictive,” she said. “That’s part of the reason why I have worked so hard to obtain a broad background. I am certain in saying that ECU has given me the ingredients for success and I am very excited to see what sort of future lies ahead of me.”

– by Cole Dittmer