King encourages grads to plant seeds of hope

The East Carolina University fall Class of 2023 graduates turned their tassels Friday morning during a ceremony held in Minges Coliseum in front of family, friends and well-wishers.

The class totaled 2,090 graduates, including 1,415 undergraduate degrees, 450 master’s degrees, 38 certificate recipients and 45 doctoral degrees. The graduates represented 39 states and 96 of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

Chancellor Philip Rogers acknowledged the accomplishments of the graduates. Rogers also recognized ECU faculty and staff as well as parents, grandparents, siblings, extended family and significant others who supported the graduates throughout their studies by asking each group to stand before the graduates.


  • Total graduates: 2090
  • Doctoral: 45
  • Masters: 450
  • Baccalaureate: 1415
  • Undergraduate Certificate: 38
  • Graduate Certificate: 142
  • N.C. Counties Represented: 96
  • States Represented: 39

“You’ve stayed strong and committed throughout your unique academic journey and you’re now crossing the finish line at a moment when this world needs you most,” said Rogers. “In many ways, today simply marks a new beginning on your Pirate journey into the future. You all arrived here from different places and with different backgrounds and ambitions, but you all leave this place as Pirates … as one ECU family, and I’m proud that you chose this university to be part of your life’s journey.

Rogers introduced keynote speaker Kelly King, a two-time ECU alumnus and the retired chairman and CEO of Truist. King told the graduates he believes they are graduating at a good time due to the amount of opportunity that has arisen due to the amount of rapid change in the world. King’s message to the graduates were to answer the questions of ‘Why are you here?’ and ‘How do you focus on living your life every day?’.

“I believe every one of us, every one of you has a very unique, very important God-given purpose,” said King in his answer to the first question. “Don’t let anybody tell you your life does not matter. You may not be 100% clear of what your purpose is today but it is there. It is important. It is powerful. It is significant. If you learn and get focused on your purpose and pursue it, you will find the alignment of purpose, success and happiness will cause you to feel really good and enriched about your life.”

King offered four steps that graduates could use to help answer his second question.

“If we go through our life waiting for some other event to happen to let us be happy, it takes it out of our control. What do I think could help us be happy even in difficult times? The first step is to choose to be happy,” said King. “You have the right to choose to be happy. I challenge people and I challenge you to look at the mirror every morning, pull your lips into a big smile, clap your hands and tell yourself, ‘I am the chairman and CEO of this company called me, and I choose to be happy.’

“The second step is to be clear about your purpose in life. When you know your purpose in life you can figure out how to overcome any obstacles. A third step is to have a growth mindset. The fourth step may be the most important, and that is to simply help other people. It takes no money to extend a hand to let other people know that you care about them. People need to know that someone really cares about them, their success, and their happiness. It’s the little things we do in life that make the difference in terms of how we impact other people.”

Also addressing the graduates were Javier Limon, Student Government Association president; Dr. Anne Ticknor, faculty chair; Jason Poole, chairman of the ECU Board of Trustees; and Harry Brown, representing the UNC Board of Governors.

Limon encouraged the graduates to remember the obstacles that they have overcome during their experience at ECU during the COVID-19 pandemic and to have the same tenacity when difficulties arise in the future.

“In a world that threw us a curveball, you swung back with determination and grit,” said Limon. “It’s a testament to your character, and I’m genuinely proud to share this moment with such a tenacious group of individuals. As we step into the next chapter of our lives, let’s carry with us the lessons learned from these challenges. Each hurdle has made us stronger, more adaptable, and ready to take on whatever comes our way.”

Ticknor’s advice to the graduates was to remember the individuals who helped them reach this point during their ECU journey and to maintain the relationships that have built beyond the conclusion of their respective academic journeys.

Commencement keynote speaker Kelly King. (Photo by Rhett Butler)

“Rely on the people you met here and continue your connections to the friends, colleagues and mentors you’ve met so they will continue to be part of your life,” she said. “Reach out to them as you continue to navigate your journey, and trust in the relationships you built as well as the knowledge you gained.”

Haley Wood-Thornhill’s first visit to ECU was to turn her tassel during commencement. She earned a master’s in library science, and with the online program, never had to leave her home near Winston-Salem.

“I think it’s beautiful,” she said of the campus. “I chose a good school.”

She said ECU excelled at providing her with a quality online education.

“I really enjoyed it,” Wood-Thornhill said. “I think ECU does a really great job of it.”

She is taking her degree to the Southside Public Library in Winston-Salem, where she will work as a children’s librarian.

“I really like kids,” she said. “I used to be a camp counselor in high school and all through college, and my mom really encouraged me to go into library science. I have a really great love of reading, and reading is so fundamental to help children learn for life.”

Information and computer technology graduate Cameron Walton and nursing graduate Caroline Betcher of Richmond, Virginia helped adjust each other’s caps and gowns prior to commencement. The couple met through mutual friends and began dating two years ago.

“We would go to the library sometimes together,” Betcher said.

“She did a lot more studying than I did,” Walton joked.

Walton is taking his degree to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, where he will work in information technology. “It was a long journey to get here, and I’m just excited about what the future holds,” he said.

Cameron Walton, an information and computer technology graduate from Beaufort, stands next to his girlfriend, Caroline Betcher, a nursing graduate from Richmond, Virginia before commencement Friday. (Photo by Ken Buday)

He said faculty in the Department of Technology Systems went above and beyond to help him.

“They were always able to put themselves forward and help anytime I needed it,” said Walton, from Beaufort. “They were very friendly and kind. Anytime I needed anything, they would always make sure I was helped fully.”

Retired Air Force veteran Marvin Alexander of Goldsboro earned a Master of Science in clinical mental health counseling. Alexander earned his second master’s degree and although he currently works with juveniles, he hopes to make an impact with a different group.

“My next move is to take the national counselor’s exam in the spring and become a licensed clinical mental health counselor,” he said. “Once I complete this, I think I want to go back and work with my military family.”

Jessica Blankenship of Elizabeth City earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and would like to work in higher education academic advising or admissions counseling to help first-generation students like herself navigate going to college.

Jessica Blankenship stands outside of Minges Coliseum prior to commencement Friday. (Photo by Steven Mantilla)

Blankenship’s graduation is significant because she survived a childhood brain tumor and surgery near her fourth birthday, she said. She’s been involved and raised over $5,000 for the Raleigh-based Pediatric Brain Tumor Foundation the past three years.

Her interest in psychology comes naturally, she said. “Because of how the mind works, especially since mine works a little bit differently,” Blankenship said. “I have that natural understanding and empathy, because that’s what you really need as a psychology major, to be open-minded and to expose yourself to all the various things about it.”

Family and friends celebrated their graduates by taking photos and sharing hugs. Among them was Sharon Jaco of Harrisburg, who was there with her daughter Reese, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. “She did this. She worked her way through. She’s paying her way. We helped her as much as we could but for the most part, she’s doing it. I’m super proud of her and excited,” Jaco said.

Melissa and Jeremy Treadaway of Charlotte joined their son, Will, who earned a bachelor’s degree in art with a concentration in graphic design. Will will be working with the Washington Nationals professional baseball team as a graphic designer. He won a football jersey design contest as an ECU undergraduate. “We’re just so excited. It’s gone by so quickly,” Melissa said. “ECU was definitely the right place for him. It’s amazing how things just work out and he ended up being in the right place. We can’t wait to see what he does moving forward.”

As the graduates prepare for their next chapter, King encouraged them to plant seeds of hope throughout their lives.

“Imagine someone hands you a handful of imaginary seeds,” said King. “These are seeds of hope. Every time you go out and do a little something for somebody … in your mind take a seed, toss it on the ground — you just planted a seed of hope. I believe if you do this as best you can throughout your life, you’ll be one of the lucky few who can look back over your life and see all of the seeds that you planted. You will know that your life matters.”

ECU chancellor Philip Rogers congratulates a graduate during the fall 2023 commencement ceremony. (Photo by Steven Mantilla)