UNC Asheville Celebrates the Class of 2017 at May 13 Commencement Ceremony

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graduates toss their hats

At a commencement ceremony highlighted by remarks from leading climate scientist and alumna Ko Barrett, and by physics and math double-major Dylan Cromer, members of UNC Asheville’s Class of 2017 received their degrees with thousands of loved ones cheering at Kimmel Arena in the Sherrill Center.

Chancellor Mary K. Grant presided and presented honorary degrees to Barrett and three leaders in their fields – pediatrician Dr. Olson Huff, M.D., woodturner and sculptor Stoney Lamar, and Cherokee elder and Beloved Woman Ellen Bird – in recognition of their contributions to Western North Carolina.

More than 470 degrees were awarded on Saturday to students attending the May 2017 Commencement, with a total of just over 500 graduates celebrated as part of the Class of 2017, as the ceremony also recognized students who will complete degree requirements by August 2017. 

Dylan CromerCromer graduated first in scholarship as the university’s 2017 Manly E. Wright Award winner and is headed next to Cornell University where he has earned a full scholarship. He will pursue a doctorate in theoretical astronomy, having had the goal to be a research scientist since arriving at UNC Asheville. “I had in mind becoming a research scientist so that I could spend my time studying a subject I love,” said Cromer speaking to his fellow graduates. “But at UNC Asheville, through all the people around me and the experiences I’ve had, I learned that this isn’t all I want to do. I want to have a meaningful social impact on the world.”

Barrett has made her impact as one of the nation’s key players in researching and disseminating knowledge about climate change. Second in command at the federal government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), she supervises the daily operations and administration of NOAA’s research enterprise and the execution of many NOAA programs including the Climate Program Office, and the Office of Weather and Air Quality research. Before coming to NOAA, she directed the Global Climate Change program at USAID.

Ko BarrettShe shared with the graduates a first-hand understanding that finding one’s way during and after college isn’t necessarily an easy or quick process. “When you walk across the stage today, you will take your own unique path,” said Barrett. “Some of you know exactly what comes next. Maybe you even knew before you set foot onto this campus and you have stuck with that plan. All I can say to you is ‘Wow.’ ‘Wow’ too to all of you who didn’t know and discovered your path as it unfolded semester by semester. You searched for yourself – as much as for your path – and you sit here today awaiting the next adventure. I am one of you – I didn’t know. As a matter of fact I may have broken the all-time record for longest time taken to complete an undergraduate degree. It took me 18 years.”

She then recounted her path, which took her from entering college on an athletic scholarship, to living in an environmentalist community financed in part by the Grateful Dead, to working as a handyman in a camp in Burnsville, N.C. as the mother of two young children, to balancing work, parenting and studies and finally earning her degree in environmental studies at UNC Asheville in 1994 at the age of 35.

“I share these stories with you because at some point ‘life’ will happen,” said Barrett. “Maybe yours won’t involve as many twists and turns as mine, but life won’t always be easy. …You will know and come to honor your own personal brand of grit. … Sometimes, your life, like the songs of the Grateful Dead, will seem to be going in one direction when slowly, slowly a new strand takes hold and off you go in another. You’ll discover your own trademark magic.”

In her charge to the graduates, Chancellor Grant also emphasized their strength and determination in the face of uncertainty. “The times we are in pose enormous challenges. But as is true in times of challenge, they present opportunities to do better,” said Grant. “To reach deeper levels of understanding of one another and to tap into a spirit of determination that we are not captives of our history, rather we are stewards of our future. The real trick, however, is to learn from our history, to learn from the challenges to tap into optimism and innovation, and face the challenges head on. You, the Class of 2017, will help lead the way.”

Chancellor Grant continued, “Graduates, I wish you well. And I offer to you my deepest and most heartfelt, most generous congratulations. It has been a great privilege to know you and to work with you. It is time to set you loose into the world--and I say, look out, world!”

Additional Awards

Patrick Foo, associate professor of psychology, was given the 2017 Distinguished Teaching Award. Foo has led the university’s neurology program and researched techniques of fall prevention and improving balance in older adults. One former student, now in medical school, praised Foo for his “unquestionable work ethic, pure passion and enthusiasm.” Foo’s recommenders also noted his “absolutely stunning classroom lectures and laboratory exercises,” and his commitment beyond the classroom to reaching students with encouragement and support.

Heidi Kelley, professor of sociology and anthropology, earned the 2017 UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching. Her teaching philosophy brings together the scholarship of social anthropology with the lived experience of her students, with her own work extending beyond the classroom through a faculty fellowship with the Key Center for Community Engaged Learning and partnerships in the Asheville community.  For more information on Kelley’s achievements in earning this award, see the news release.

Anja Mayr was awarded the A.C. Reynolds Award and Thomas D. Reynolds Prize for her outstanding service to the campus community. Mayr graduates with a Bachelor of Science having double-majored in health and wellness promotion and psychology, earning departmental distinction and distinction as a university research scholar.

JaNesha Slaughter received the William and Ida Friday Award for her outstanding service to the larger community. Slaughter graduates with a Bachelor of Arts in political science, earning departmental distinction, distinction as a university scholar and cum laude Latin honors.

For more information on Mayr, Slaughter and other student, faculty and staff awardees, see the Spring 2017 Leadership Awards news release.

For more information on UNC Asheville’s Honorary Degree Recipients, see the earlier news release.