Spring 2023 Pirate grads turn their tassels
Each one’s journey has been different, but almost 5,000 Pirates now share at least one major accomplishment in common — they are East Carolina University graduates.
ECU’s Class of 2023 totaled 4,946 graduates, including 3,556 undergraduate degrees, 1,013 master’s degrees, 220 certificate recipients and 157 doctoral degrees. The graduates represented 39 states and 94 of North Carolina’s 100 counties.
To mark the occasion, university officials, faculty and staff, graduates, family members and friends gathered in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium to celebrate the conferral of their degrees.
Michael Washington of York, Pennsylvania, was first in line for the College of Health and Human Performance graduates near Gate 4 on the south side of the stadium.
A magna cum laude graduate with a bachelor’s in health fitness specialist, he plans to pursue a graduate degree in occupational therapy, which drew him to ECU four years ago.
“The school itself has been a really great experience. I’m glad I came here. I would do it again if I could. I’ve had great professors, the classes were awesome and I learned a lot,” he said.
He plans to get certified this summer for personal training and group fitness instruction.
“I love being active, I’ve always played sports and in and out of the gym. I just want to bring physical activity to other people, especially people who don’t know how to do it themselves,” Washington said.
Among 17 people in the stands for the special day were Washington’s girlfriend Katie Payne ’22, his mother, Jennifer Bond of York, Pennsylvania, and father Stan Washington of Sicklerville, New Jersey. “It truly is amazing. It’s the fastest four years of my life. I feel like we just moved him in,” Bond said about the youngest of four children.
“It’s surreal,” Stan Washington said. “He went out with a bang. He’s graduating with honors. We’re very proud of him.”
“The journey to this day required a great deal of personal sacrifice,” ECU Chancellor Philip Rogers told the graduates. “But you have persevered. You are strong and you are resilient. And you graduate at a moment in time when you are desperately needed, when your skills, your talents, your knowledge and your leadership are required in order for this world to thrive.”
Making a difference
One graduate eager to make a difference was Jenna Boggiano of Toms River, New Jersey, who said she chose ECU because of its strong nursing program and because it felt like home after visiting. With nursing school behind her and the NCLEX licensure exams around the corner, Boggiano said she’s “excited to start working and to be a nurse.”
Rogers introduced Ryan Bonnett, Student Government Association president; Anne Ticknor, chair of the faculty; Scott Shook, chair of the ECU Board of Trustees; and David Powers of the UNC Board of Governors, who each congratulated the Class of 2023. Powers also recognized Elizabeth Ables, this year’s recipient of the UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching.
In preparing his keynote remarks, Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president emeritus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), spoke with six graduates, asking them what their classmates might like to hear during the commencement ceremony.
Based on their input, he encouraged the graduates to rely on what they’ve learned about resilience during college and a pandemic; not to let anyone else define who they are; to reach out to others, get help when they need it, and ask good questions; to believe in themselves; to be flexible and adaptable; and to have no doubt that it will be OK.
Hrabowski served as UMBC’s president for 30 years. He is also the inaugural American Council on Education Centennial Fellow. His research, publications and life’s work have focused on science and math education, with special emphasis on underrepresented minority participation and performance, Rogers said.
Hrabowski shared some of his own story, including how his grandmother would bake a blueberry pie just for him when his family visited.
“I would eat that blueberry pie all by myself and savor every morsel,” he said. “This day represents dreams fulfilled, not just for you, but also for your families. Savor it! This is your blueberry pie moment. Taste it! Enjoy!”
Commencement is the beginning of the next stage of life, Hrabowski said, encouraging the graduates to never stop learning.
‘We’re making history’
Maria Alexander Ortiz became the first in her family to graduate from college.
“I’m still a bit in denial. I didn’t see myself this far,” she said of graduating. “I knew I was going to do it, but I didn’t know it was going to be in a blink of an eye, so it’s shocking for me.”
The mother of two balanced work and home life while commuting about an hour from her Pikeville home for classes. Her daughter joined her at ECU this year as a freshman.
Ortiz is among seven students in the first class to obtain Bachelor of Science degrees in software engineering, a program in the Department of Computer Science that enrolled its first students in 2019.
“It feels awesome because we’re making history,” she said of being in the first class. “And making history is not bad.”
Gibely Cisneros couldn’t hold back her smile.
“I’m so excited,” she said. “As a first-generation student, this is a big deal to me.”
Graduating with a degree in psychology, she laughs when she thinks about professors who tried to pronounce her name.
“I never got my name pronounced right in any of my classes on the first day — never,” she said, saying her name sounds like ja belly. “It’s just such a unique name. I love my name.”
Cisneros isn’t going far after commencement.
“I’m getting my master’s in marriage and family therapy here at ECU, so I’m coming right back for two more years,” she said.
With about an hour before the ceremony, Honors College students Caroline Moore of Hickory and Cary Hula of Williamsburg, Virginia, reflected on their time at ECU. “I never really thought I’d make it, because it’s so much more challenging than I expected it to be, but I’ve had such an amazing experience here,” Moore said.
“Losing half of our freshman year and most of our sophomore year because of COVID, I don’t know how to describe it. I feel like we didn’t get the normal college experience but I still had the best four years of my life,” Hula said.
The soon-to-be elementary school teachers said the College of Education’s top reputation combined with the honors program made their decisions to attend ECU an easy one. “Of all the schools that I toured, as soon as I came here, I just knew. I finished my campus tour, and I got the feeling like this is where I need to be,” Hula said. “I’ve wanted to be a teacher as long as I can remember, and there was nowhere better for me to get started.”
Rachel Zack, also an elementary education major, said she’s excited to take what she’s learned at ECU back home to Connecticut, where she hopes to find a position teaching fourth grade. Among the memorable moments from her time as a Pirate is one from student teaching, when several of her students climbed a slide at the same time and tumbled off.
“Then they all came running over to me with wood chips all over them,” she said. “They were totally fine, but they got me all covered in wood chips and I thought it was the funniest thing ever.”
Zack said she will remember those students as well as her friends and classmates from ECU as she embarks on her career.
Among the many graduates who personalized their mortarboards was Rosalynd Hollingsworth of Lexington, Kentucky, a public health major and member of the track team, whose board featured Proverbs 16:3.
“I’m a track athlete, and I just think if I do my academics and my athletics, and commit it all to Him that my path will be established; no matter what I want, it’s what He wants,” she said.
Hollingsworth, who plans to continue her education with a master’s degree and possibly become a physician assistant, said she will miss her teammates the most, as their support throughout her time at ECU made all the difference.
First gen excitement
Psychology major Amber Crouse of Fayetteville and biology major Ariana Fleury of Sneads Ferry waited with other Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences students before commencement. Both are first generation students and described feeling “excited nervousness” waiting for their walk onto the field. Both are looking forward to taking a break from studies and will continue working as they have throughout school. Fleury is also planning to get certified as a pharmacy technician to start saving money to attend physical therapy school.
Being the first to attend college has influenced others in their family. “My mom is finishing up her associate degree and my father is thinking about going back to college,” Fleury said.
Sitting in the north side stands, proud parents Anna and David Booth of Cary and Carol Booth of Charlotte held up signs with the face of George Booth, who earned a degree in management information systems in the College of Business with a minor in composite science.
“He will be horrified. He hates getting his picture taken,” Anna said. The signs were his aunt Carol’s idea, who had similar placards made for another nephew when he graduated college five years ago.
“It’s a big day in everybody’s life,” David said about their oldest son.
“We’re so excited. COVID was hard on him, he changed his major and had to take extra time, but we’re extremely proud. He’s matured, and he’s ready,” Anna said.
Karla Jones, chair of the ECU Alumni Association, recognized the recipients of the Robert H. Wright Leadership Award — Ono Abulimen, Matt Blount, Teresa Hupp, Calli Jon Massengil and Wrenn McCrae Whitfield.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, Bonnett and Brandon Frye, vice chancellor for student affairs, oversaw the traditional turning of the tassels, and Zyion Stephens led the singing of ECU’s alma mater.