Spring 2024 graduates celebrate accomplishments

While their journeys are unique, nearly 5,000 Pirate graduates came together to celebrate the completion of an East Carolina University degree during spring commencement on a sun-splashed Friday morning in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

ECU’s Class of 2024 totaled approximately 4,950 graduates, including students completing their degrees this summer. Of the graduates, 795 are first-generation college graduates.

“You have navigated a global pandemic with grace, grit and determination,” said ECU Chancellor Philip Rogers. “You’ve experienced new challenges and new adventures through all walks of life. You have persevered at every step. 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.”

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.

Rogers introduced Javier Limon, Student Government Association president; Anne Ticknor, chair of the faculty; Jason Poole, chairman of the ECU Board of Trustees; and Jimmy Clark, representing the UNC Board of Governors, who each congratulated the Class of 2024. Clark presented ECU faculty member Dr. Anne Spuches with the UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching.

ECU alumni chair Robert Cherry recognized this year’s recipients of the Robert H. Wright Leadership Award — Luke Boldt, Rachana Charla, Anjalee Hou, Limon and Tete Narh-Mensah.

Commencement speaker Ronnie Barnes, an ECU alumus, addresses the graduates. (ECU photo by Steven Mantilla)

Ronnie Barnes gave the keynote address and received the ECU honorary degree of Doctor of Letters. A 1975 graduate of ECU’s College of Health and Human Performance, he was the first African American graduate of the sports medicine program at the university. Barnes is senior vice president of medical services and head athletic trainer for the New York Giants and a member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and National Athletic Trainers Association Hall of Fame.

Barnes was introduced at the commencement breakfast by Kevin King, head athletic trainer for the Carolina Panthers, who is also an ECU alumnus. Barnes was nominated for the honorary degree by Drs. Stacey Altman and Katie Flanagan representing the College of Health and Human Performance.

In his commencement address, Barnes cited some of his professional experiences as well as experiences the graduates would have faced during their youth as he encouraged them to be resilient and find the courage to persevere.

“If there is one lesson I have learned throughout my own journey, it’s this: Resilience is not merely the ability to endure hardships, but the power to transform them into opportunities for growth,” said Barnes. “As you embark on this next chapter of your life, I urge you to embrace the challenges that lie ahead with the same resilience and determination that has brought you to this moment. Setbacks are not failures but opportunities for growth, and the path to success is rarely straight. Embrace the challenges, cherish the moments and never forget the strength that lies within you.”

He concluded his remarks by suggesting graduates honor the university motto, Servire, and serve with empathy, compassion and kindness.

Class of 2024

First generation student Juwan Everett of Salisbury is receiving a degree in computer science.

From left, graduates Asanti Neal-Platt, Tatiyana Belcher and Raven Austin. (ECU photo by Doug Boyd)

“It feels surreal. It’s been a long journey and I felt like it would never come, but it’s here and a great feeling,” said Everett. “My biggest takeaway from ECU is perseverance. Even if I’m not on the path that I think is best for me right now, I’ll just keep going and find my way.”

Asanti Neal-Platt and Raven Austin met on their second day at ECU. Now they’re graduating together.

“We’re best friends,” Austin said. They’re from Greensboro and went to rival high schools and graduated during the pandemic.

“We had a drive-by graduation,” Austin said.

Neal-Platt graduated with a degree in biology and is entering the Air Force. She said her professors stand out in her memories of ECU.

“They really helped me,” she said.

Austin graduated with degrees in economics and interior design.

Mastering their craft

Savannah Boyd of Chocowinity earned her master’s degree in communication sciences and disorders. Boyd will stay in Greenville to work at a pediatric private practice.

Graduates process into Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium at the start of the commencement ceremony. (ECU photo by Steven Mantilla)

“It was important for me to work hard but also important to have fun,” said Boyd. “It’s important to build relationships here that will last a lifetime. I told my cohort that we went from being peers and not knowing each other to friends, and now we’re colleagues. If I ever need anything, I’ll be able to count on them and vice versa.”

Nigar Mushtaque earned his master’s degree in data science. Mushtaque, who is from Bangalore, India, took on the challenge of earning his degree while also adjusting to a new country and culture and was aided by family members and his ECU community.

“Initially, I found it difficult to open up to network effectively,” said Mushtaque. “However, the continuous encouragement from my cousin, along with the supportive community at ECU —including professors, classmates and friends — helped me gradually find my footing. They were instrumental in helping me overcome my shyness and encouraged me to engage more actively in both academic and social activities.”

Continuing a family tradition

Courtney McCool of Greensboro earned her Doctor of Medicine from the Brody School of Medicine. McCool carried on a family tradition of Brody graduates: Both of her parents went to Brody and were cadaver lab partners before getting married and raising four children.

“I dreamt of being a doctor my whole life. Both parents are physicians and I’ve always known that I wanted to pursue medicine. It means the world to me,” said McCool, who is headed to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston for a pediatrics residency.

“It is a long journey, but it is worth every sacrifice that you’ll have to make along the way,” she said after completing medical school. “Being on this side of it, I’d do it all over again 10 times.”

Proud parents

Gene and Cheryl Walker drove 320 miles from Damascus, Maryland, for their daughter Rachel’s graduation. With undergraduate degrees in biology and chemistry, she followed her older brother Stewart, a 2022 nursing graduate, to ECU.

College of Nursing graduates celebrate the conferral of their degrees. (ECU photo by Steven Mantilla)

“We were pleasantly surprised when she said she wanted to go to the same university as her older brother because we already had all of the T-shirts,” said Gene Walker.

The parents said they could not be more pleased with the collegiate choices of their children.

“We loved the education that they both received here,” said Cheryl Walker.

The family graduation photograph included Nemo, Rachel’s guide dog.

“Being a student with a visual disability, she has conquered a lot of obstacles and has done an amazing job,” Gene Walker said. “We’re extremely proud of her.”

Parents William and Michelle Johnson smiled broadly inside Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, anxious to see their daughter Niya enter the field.

“We told her all the time to keep her faith and study hard,” Michelle Johnson said. “There are going to be some breakdowns but keep your faith.”

Niya received her Bachelor of Science in engineering, with a concentration in biomedical engineering.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, Limon and Brandon Frye, vice chancellor for student affairs, oversaw the traditional turning of the tassels, and ECU Master of Arts graduate Ashley Prince led the singing of ECU’s alma mater.

“As you venture forth into the world, know that the lessons you have learned here at ECU — resilience, perseverance and the unyielding pursuit of excellence — will serve as the foundation upon which you build your future,” said Barnes.