Capping it off: Commencement 2017

May 10, 2017

By Nina Mastandrea

Dressed from head-to-toe in black satin regalia and anxiously awaiting with excitement, 334 students simmer in their seats, anticipating their designated time to approach the stage and receive their degree.

Of the 334 graduates that received their diplomas on Saturday, May 6–the largest graduating class in Lees-McRae history– approximately 80 stood out amidst their identically dressed classmates in a curious way.

From any other perspective, Commencement may have looked like any other celebratory gathering, however with a birds-eye view it became much more apparent.

Those near-80 students, speckled throughout the darkly dressed crowd, exhibited caps adorned, embellished and trimmed with glitter, bows, jewels and stickers.

Some students used it as an opportunity to celebrate their time at Lees-McRae, whereas others used the cap’s flat brim to flaunt their future career.

In almost all cases, students cleverly used puns, plays on words and acronyms.

One even said, Be the change you wish to See ‘N the world” emphasizing the “B” “S” and “N” to stand for her degree in Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

Crossing the Stage


Even though 334 students received their degree on that day, each graduate had their unique moment on stage.

Some hugged their respective dean (who announced their program’s graduates), some danced across the stage, but many others hastened their pace, eagerly reaching out to clasp the leather diploma folder from Lees-McRae President Barry Buxton’s hands.

For both the main campus students who gathered in Hayes Auditorium at 10 a.m. that day, and the online and extended campus students who assembled at 2 p.m., each audience had the opportunity to listen to Commencement speaker and Honorary Doctorate of Education recipient, Mark Reed, speak.

Head of School at Charlotte Country Day School in Charlotte, North Carolina, Reed presented his speech titled, “The Honor of Failure” in which he addressed his own personal failures throughout his long-standing career.

However, his speech was not only about his failures, it was about celebrating them.

“Failure and how you honor it will define your existence far more than any success you may experience,” Reed said.

He explained that in today’s society, we, as a whole, are scared to fail. However, Reed proposed a challenge.

“Today, I want you to consider the opposite. If we stop taking risks and failing, how will we ever progress as a society, a country or humanity? What if we reframe failure instead? What if we see failure as the catalyst of social progress?” he added.

Reed then called for action.

“Class of 2017, you have but one lifetime. Step into the arena and spend yourself on something that seems to be impossible. Too big of a goal simply isn’t. We see daring greatly–and failing greatly–all around us…forget about the moon, think about your world. What are you passionate about?” Reed said.

“Mister or Miss Lees-McRae College”


Following Reed’s speech as well as those from Senior Class President, Melissa Hooper, and Associate Provost of Distance Learning, Bo Bennett, Lees-McRae Provost, Todd Lidh began the presentation of candidates for degrees.

Once students were back in their seats, leather diploma folders in their hands, it was time to name the two recipients of the H.C. Evans, Jr. Fidelity Award.

Named after the late Dr. H.C. Evans, ninth president of the college, the Fidelity Award recognizes academic excellence, campus citizenship, friendliness, leadership and service to Lees-McRae and the surrounding community.

Dean of Arts, Humanities and Education Ken Craig, who presented the main campus award, explained that, “Dr. Evans…used to refer to the Fidelity Award recipient as ‘Mister or Miss Lees-McRae College.’”

The main campus award was presented to English honors graduate Morgan Corbett and the online and extended campus award, which was presented by Dean of Nursing and Health Sciences Laura Fero, was presented to nursing honors graduate Andrea Rector.

Following Commencement, eager family and friends were reunited with their graduates both outside of the Hayes Auditorium and in the Cannon Student Center where graduates received their official diplomas.

Many graduates posed for photographs holding up their diplomas in massive pride and others pulled their family members close by their side smiling, and sometimes, crying tears of accomplishment.

Finishing a Chapter

It was the relieving cap on a tumultuous week for many.

Just a few days ago, the same men and women were in the library studying for their final examinations, only returning to their campus housing to pack their belongings and close their college chapter.  

However, the week was not all high-stress. Just one day prior, on Friday, May 5, graduating seniors participated in several events to celebrate, honor and practice for the Commencement ceremony only hours away.

Friday at noon, students met at the Alumni House to participate in the college’s annual Senior Celebration Brunch hosted by the Alumni Association.

Students enjoyed a meal with their fellow classmates before receiving their graduation gifts–a pen and a carved wooden plaque in the shape of North Carolina. Engraved in the light grain wrote, “LMC ’17” accompanied by a small bobcat paw print over Banner Elk’s location. The wooden plaques were made by Lees-McRae alumnus Matt Debnam ’07.

Later that afternoon, nearly 20 inductees to the National College Honor Society, Alpha Chi, were celebrated in Evans Auditorium.

In an event designed to reflect on the student’s personal growth and achievement, Friday concluded with the college’s Baccalaureate service.

During the service, students wore their gowns and learned about the history behind their traditional regalia by professor of Performing Arts, Dr. Michael Hannah, before “hooding” their classmates–a long-established practice where students place the bachelor hood over their colleague’s shoulders.

From start to finish, the week proved itself to be a special and bitter-sweet time for all of those involved.

In the weekend’s final moments, the graduates returned to their rooms, unzipped their gowns and removed their caps, packed their bags and cars and left to begin the next big chapters in their lives, ultimately leaving Lees-McRae College, Banner Elk and everyone within, behind.

Even though the services, ceremonies and celebrations are long over, the tassels and elaborately decorated caps of the now-alumni will remain within eyesight, constantly and gently reminding them of home, beckoning them to return some day.


See more Commencement photos

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