UNC Asheville Celebrates the Class of 2018 at May 12 Commencement Ceremony on the Quad

Featured image: 
graduates toss hats in air

Update: The UNC Asheville Board of Trustees voted to accept the voluntary return of William J. Murdock’s 2018 honorary degree and to rescind the award on March 8, 2019. Read the Board of Trustees' statement.

With 5,000 people attending, UNC Asheville celebrated the Class of 2018 at its May 12 Commencement on the University Quad. Some 570 May graduates are part of the class of 2018, with graduates ranging in age from 17 to 72.

UNC Asheville Interim Chancellor Joe Urgo presided and presented honorary degrees to William J. Murdock, co-founder and CEO of Eblen Charities; Etta Whitner Patterson, a civil rights activist and the first black student admitted to UNC Asheville’s predecessor institution; and S. Tucker Cooke, UNC Asheville professor emeritus of art. For more information on the honorary degree recipients, see the news release.

Commencement Speaker William J. Murdock

William J. Murdock co-founded Eblen Charities, one of Western North Carolina’s most important service organizations, serving tens of thousands of families with medication, housing, food, utility assistance, physician visits, school supplies and more. In his commencement address, he underlined for the graduates, “Whatever you do and wherever you go from here, please keep in mind that we’re not here for ourselves.”

From left, S. Tucker Cooke, Etta Whitner Patterson, Joe Urgo and William J. MurdockIn 2014, Murdock was awarded the Mother Teresa Global Prize for Peace and Leadership, and in his commencement talk, he quoted Mother Teresa’s response to someone offering to come from afar to join in her work with India’s poor. The response, according to Murdock, was “Find your own Calcutta.” Murdock urged the graduates to “find your calling right there where you are. … You can find Calcutta all over the world if you just have the eyes to see.”

“So much is written and said about finding your calling in life – finding what you are supposed to do,” said Murdock. “You will find it. …  I know what was shared here today won’t change the world. But it might change your heart a bit. It might give you a moment’s pause to ask yourself that most important question: ‘What is it that I have that I can give to the world?’

“You will know what it is when your deepest heart’s desire meets the world’s greatest need. It is probably a lot closer than you think,” he said. “What do you have to give to the world as you go from here and carry with you and uphold the great reputation of this great university? Your Calcutta awaits.”

Student Speaker Olivia Godfrey

Olivia Godfrey, a psychology major with a minor in health and wellness promotion, was selected as student commencement speaker; she received UNC Asheville’s top academic honor, the Manly E. Wright Award, and the William and Ida Friday Award for outstanding service to the community.

Olivia GodfreyGodfrey began conducting research during her first year on campus, and in her remarks, she expressed her gratitude to her faculty mentor in psychology, Associate Professor Melissa Smith. “During freshman orientation, I visited the Psychology Department table and chatted with Dr. Melissa Smith about my interest in majoring in the program,” recalled Godfrey. “Two months later, I was sitting in her developmental psychology classroom, with a growing appreciation for research in human behavior, health, and mental processes. Dr. Smith gave me the opportunity to conduct independent undergraduate research, and mentored me through the grant application, presentation, and publication process for our project.”

Godfrey also recalled the life and words of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, saying, “It is my hope that we will all live as Neruda suggests, and be guided by our compassion and respect for all persons in making change for our communities: with our votes, our time, our conversations with each other, and our intellectual and creative products.” This fall, Godfrey will pursue a Master of Arts in experimental psychology at Appalachian State University, working under a grant from the National Institute on Aging to research cognition, memory, and health in older adulthood.

Interim Chancellor Joe Urgo’s Charge to the Graduates

“In our culture of instant gratification and life hacks for everything … it’s no wonder the liberal arts is under attack from some quarters. It is the most challenging way to get a college degree. You did not settle for superficial job training, for the fast track to a place – anyplace – in the workforce – you wanted and you got the greater challenge,” Interim Chancellor Joe Urgo told the graduates at the close of the ceremony. “What you have earned cannot be taken away and will never be outdated, only reaffirmed and cultivated. You, members of UNC Asheville’s class of 2018, you are not simply members of this nation’s workforce, with all the quiet desperation that implies, you are members of our national critical thought-force.”

“Within this thought-force are the change-makers, the minds that don’t understand why that’s the way we have always done it, who ask again and insist on the fundamental questions about equity and fairness and decency, who have the long view in a short-sighted environment,” he said.

“If there is something we have accomplished in offering you a liberal arts education – one informed by that sense of having been liberated – it is my hope and expectation that you are able to see past the hype and hucksterism of the marketplace. That you are aware of major trends in human history, the forces that define us and influence our lives. And that you are aware that every moment contains a multitude of potential directions, interpretations, and discoveries. This potential is there to be created. You will create the future because you are able to think through these challenges from multiple perspectives. My charge to you is that you take your role in this thought-force seriously, apply it when called on to do so, and to continue to cultivate it.

There is no doubt that you will need to apply and cultivate your critical thought-force skills. We face big, complicated, intractable problems – climate change, violence in our schools, inaccessible health care, racial inequities, income disparities, infrastructure collapse, global tensions and hostilities. Continuing to apply the same kind of thinking that got us into these predicaments won’t get us out. We need a critical thought-force that moves nimbly from one way of thinking to another – testing, failing, trying again, moving towards solutions in continuous collaborations with others, in a rapid-fire social and political context, moving quickly from street to cloud, from social media to social movement.

Cultivating the critical thought-force is not a mere suggestion. It is an expectation, a charge, and we raise these expectations for you, the graduating class of 2018, for our future, and for our shared humanity.”

Additional Awards Conferred

Bert Holmes, the Carson Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at UNC Asheville, was given the 2018 Board of Governors Excellence in Teaching Award, in addition to the 2018 Council on Undergraduate Research Fellows Award. To learn more, see the news release.

Nancy Ruppert, chair and professor of education, was given the 2018 Distinguished Teaching Award. To learn more about this and other awards given by UNC Asheville to exceptional faculty, see the feature article.

Tim Hussey, outgoing Student Government Association president, received the A.C. Reynolds Award and Thomas D. Reynolds Prize for his outstanding service to the campus community. To learn more about this and other awards to students, see the news release.