WINGATE – More than 250 students experienced a “shout it from the rooftops” kind of morning when Wingate University held its fifth fall commencement ceremony on Dec. 10 in Cuddy Arena.

All told, 266 students – 150 graduate students and 116 undergrads – were eligible to cross the stage to shake hands or bump fists with President Rhett Brown and receive their diplomas.

Among graduate programs, physician assistant studies (57) and physical therapy (42) had the most graduates, while the most popular majors among undergraduates walking the stage on Saturday were biology (20, including environmental biology), human services (17) and psychology (13).

Students heard words of wisdom and encouragement from a pair of Wingate professors serving as commencement speakers. Rebecca Boeschel, associate director of the physician assistant studies program, noted the creativity, flexibility and resilience it took for the students present to become graduates during the pandemic.

“This is your day,” said Boeschel, the second of the speakers, after Dr. Chris Harrist, associate professor and chair of the Department of Sport & Recreation Management. “Actually, a ‘shout it from the rooftops’ type of day. You did it, and collectively we could not be prouder! You were compelled to take Frost’s road less traveled. There were closures, delays, detours, breakdowns, repairs and yet here you are.”

She also urged students to show “gratitude for the support of loved ones and friends, old and new; the persons who know best the sacrifices made to get to this place.”

Lauren Matthews, who received her master’s in physician assistant studies on Saturday, would add faculty and staff members to the list of gratitude-worthy people. Matthews discovered firsthand the value of a small campus with professors who know you well. When she was having some difficulty in her cardiology class, Matthews was approached by assistant professor Kristy Putts, who suggested they have a one-on-one study session.

“She was like, ‘If you need this any other time, don’t hesitate to reach out,’” Matthews said. “It  just resonates so much with you as a student that you didn’t even have to reach out to the faculty, that they saw that you may be lacking in this one area.”

Even before she enrolled in PA school, Matthews knew very well the impact of Wingate’s personal education, despite having gotten her bachelor’s degree at UNC Wilmington. Matthews’ mother, father and brother all attended Wingate as undergraduates, and her brother, William Matthews, even tacked on a Pharm.D. from Wingate for good measure.

“I am so happy with my decision to go to Wingate,” Lauren Matthews said. “It’s fun to say that we’ve all gone to Wingate University, but I’ve really enjoyed my time at Wingate personally. I’ve made some great friends in my program. I feel that I’m well prepared to go out in the world with my knowledge and the things that I’ve learned in the PA program.”

Harrist encouraged students to be their BEST: bold, empathetic, successful and thankful. Harrist, who played college basketball and has coached the sport for a couple of decades, preaches to his players that they should embrace failure. He said grads should too.

“When I coach, one of the things I constantly remind my team is that success is never owned,” he said. “It’s only rented, and rent is due every single day.”

He implored graduates to take the boldness they showed at Wingate with them as they pursue careers and further education.

“Think about all those fears you had your freshman year or, for you graduate students, the first year of your master’s and doctoral program,” he said. “Remember how you confronted those fears, how you met those challenges head on. Don’t be afraid to have passion. Don’t be afraid to care about something deeply. Don’t be afraid to pursue a dream. Constantly challenge yourself.”

Graduates Dulce and Flor Mejia Cartagena have been meeting challenges head on since they immigrated to the United States from Honduras as eighth-graders. Despite the twins’ dual citizenship, they say they faced discrimination in the first middle school they attended and were not welcomed in honors courses in high school.

“They assumed, because we were new to the country and didn’t speak great English, that we couldn’t make it in advanced courses,” Dulce Mejia Cartagena said. After they earned their associate in arts degrees at Central Piedmont Community College, they transferred to Wingate, where they graduated on Saturday after, they say, being well supported by faculty and staff.

“The professors, they ask about our family,” Flor said. “They understand the traditions we have, our culture. That helps you to feel more welcome.”

Flor initially planned to pursue a degree in education and Dulci considered nursing, but both ultimately chose to major in human services and to minor in Spanish. They commuted to Wingate from Charlotte together and have had most of their classes together. Their only regret about the last two years at Wingate is that, because the pandemic forced students online for much of the 2020-21 academic year, they didn’t get to spend as much time on campus as they would have liked.

Although they don’t anticipate working together, they’re both seeking jobs in bilingual social work and would love to work with children who are immigrating.

“Because of my life experience, I feel like I know why they move over here,” Flor said. “It touches me because I know they need help. And I want to help.”

During commencement, four undergraduates were presented with the H.K. Helms Award, recognizing their having achieved the highest academic average. They were Julia Jordan Lasure, a history major from Cornelius; Heather Elysia Morse, a criminal justice major from Clayton; Emily Suzanne Richardson, a biology major from Norwood; and Isabella Walle, an English major from Matthews. Lasure, Morse and Walle were also part of the University’s Honors College. 

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