A New Adventure

Experience Commencement as 246 graduates cross the stage and begin a new adventure in their lives

In the early hours of Saturday, May 11, campus buzzed with excitement as 246 students prepared to become graduates of Lees-McRae College—it was Commencement day.

In just a few hours, each graduate was slated to climb the stairs of the Commencement stage in Williams Gymnasium and wait for their names to be called before reaching out to shake hands with President Lee King and receive their diploma.

The morning was a culmination years in the making and it was going to be one that no one would soon forget. After all, an event like Commencement is an experience any person may encounter only a handful of times in their life—it’s special beyond words.

Moments before they will begin to process into Williams Gymnasium, students help one another adjust their hoods, secure their caps, and pose for photos. 

Just a few rooms over, graduates were already in their academic regalia. Each one adorned in their green and gold hoods they learned how to wear just the night prior, and many others with pins, tassels, and sashes hanging over their shoulders. As diverse as the graduates who wore them, many students chose to add one-of-a-kind touches to their regalia by decorating their caps with almost anything—flowers, quotes, glitter, and in one case, LED lights.

Around the corner, faculty and staff also congregated in the hallways of Williams Gymnasium adorned in their own regalia—long cloaks with velvet details indicating years spent earning master’s and doctoral degrees.

Once the clock struck 10 a.m., it was time to begin the moment everyone had been waiting for—Commencement.


Order of the Tower members lead students down one of the hallways in Williams Gymnasium as faculty and staff cheer and clap in their honor.

With the sound of traditional bagpipes in the air, faculty and staff lined the hallways and cheered on the graduates as they processed into the gymnasium.

Once the graduates were at their seats, and with family and friends looking on, faculty and staff made their way to their seats as well.

The start of the ceremony was led in prayer with the invocation by Banner Elk Presbyterian Church Rev. Feild Russell followed by a welcome by graduate Tariana Nguyen. 

“Two hundred and forty six individuals today are being awarded their degrees, degrees they have put a tremendous amount of effort in obtaining,” she began. “I hope you take these next few moments to reflect with me, and feel all of the emotions that come with graduating college.”

Nguyen said they may be experiencing feelings of love for having their family present, appreciation for the faculty and staff who guided them along the way, excitement for the next chapter in their lives, or even sadness as they realize “dear friends won’t be right down the hallway,” she said.

“Whether it has taken you two years, or five years, you all have worked so incredibly hard to get here, and since the start, have made investments in your future and chose to start your career here at Lees-McRae,” she said. “That investment into your career, yourself, your success, and your happiness has been paying off and will continue to pay off. Everyone here today is here to celebrate you and how far you have come. Congratulations! ”

Nguyen’s welcome was followed by a performance by The Highlanders, the college’s choral ensemble.

Tariana Nguyen

Tariana Nguyen addresses fellow graduates, faculty, staff, families, and friends at the start of the Commencement ceremony. 

For the first time in his presidency at Lees-McRae, enrobed in his unmistakable dark green gown, Dr. Lee King welcomed the speaker for the Commencement address and congratulated the graduates for all the hard work given to make it to this very special day.

“It’s an honor for us to get the chance to celebrate this day with you, and I look forward to seeing you walk across the stage in a few moments,” he said. “It’s also an honor to be able to introduce you to today’s Commencement speaker, Mr. Blake DeMaso.”

DeMaso, a native of Charlottesville, Virginia, is the owner and president of Summit Publishing and Mountain High Media. Producing two regional magazines, Blue Ridge Outdoors and Elevation Outdoors, and leading his specialized creative agency, DeMaso embodies the tagline of his magazines, “get outside and play,” through fishing, hiking, and skiing among other outdoor interests.

King said he wanted a Commencement speaker that personified the college’s motto—In the Mountains, Of the Mountains, For the Mountains—“and Blake DeMaso fulfills every one of these criteria,” King said.

When King first met DeMaso six years prior, “he struck me then as a really fun guy and an impressive entrepreneur who has devoted his entire career to outdoor business, adventure journalism, environmental stewardship, and protecting the precious resources of the Blue Ridge Mountains.”

King then invited DeMaso to the podium to present his address titled, “Find Your Adventure.”

Blake DeMaso, owner and president of Summit Publishing and Mountain High Media, shares his Commencement address titled, “Find Your Adventure.”

DeMaso opened his remarks with a story of his first draft gone awry.

“I worked tirelessly on what I was going to say and then one day it came to me while I was outside knee deep in my favorite trout stream,” DeMaso began. “I made a beeline back home and wrote the opening paragraph. I looked back over it and it was the most profound thing that I have ever written.”

DeMaso immediately traveled to the kitchen in their home to present the opening of his speech titled, “The Journey” to his wife and kids. Only a few sentences in, DeMaso was met with shaking heads and his 17-year-old daughter rolling her eyes. He then came to learn that the popular TV show The Bachelor “ruined the word ‘journey,’” DeMaso said.

“For days it was reported that I was walking around looking down and shaking my head, mumbling about how some dumb reality TV show just ruined my speech. So I decided to focus on what I know the best, the outdoors.”

As graduates of Lees-McRae, DeMaso went on to share, “you are already in a great position for whatever your future holds because as a school you have embraced adventure. Adventure isn’t just about doing things like rock climbing, skiing, or hiking. Life is one big adventure. Adventure is getting that first apartment, first job, or first love. Adventure is leaving friends and family and starting in a new town where you don’t know anyone. And the adventures never stop. They continue through life creating relationships and family.”

“I am sure many of you are ready, excited, and yes, nervous about moving on to your next adventure,” he said. “You might be ready to put Lees-McRae and Banner Elk in your rear view mirror and move on. Just remember that your adventures began here and you are well equipped to take what you have learned here and go out into the world and make yourself, your families, and this school proud.”

Unfortunately, adventure and taking chances, DeMaso explained, also comes with failure at times.

“It’s natural that if you are taking a risk, you aren’t always going to succeed,” he explained. “The key to failure is to not let it beat you, and most importantly don’t panic. Take the time to understand what you need to do differently, why that failure occurred, and then get up and try again.”

He went on to complete his speech with a direct address to the graduates sitting in the room.

“Adventure is at the core of this school and it is now part of you,” he said. “Embrace those risky undertakings and bold experiences. And yes, they are scary but also exciting. Accept failure, embrace learning, and go on to that next adventure.”

And finally, “never stop taking chances.”

Now it was only moments before graduates would receive their degrees. Provost and Dean of Faculty Todd Lidh presented the candidates for the degrees before passing the honor of conferring the degrees to President King.

One-by-one each of the 246 students receiving their degree made their way to the stage, each name called out by their respective academic dean.

With each graduate, cheers and clapping filled the room as friends, family, faculty, staff, and fellow graduates stood in their honor and celebrated the cherished moment.


(Top left) Graduate Nolan Capps receives his diploma from President King and poses for a photo on the Commencement stage. (Top right) Faculty cheer on the graduates as they receive their diplomas. (Bottom) Families and friends across Williams Gymnasium stand and shout for their graduates.

Last, but certainly not least, it was time to announce the two winners of the H.C. Evans Jr. Fidelity awards presented by Dean of Nursing and Health Sciences Laura Fero and Dean of Natural and Behavioral Sciences Billy Carver.

Fero presented the main-campus award to Maggie Thomas, “a student who worked hard as a pre-nursing major and a minor in religious studies and excelled in all other areas of her academics. Most importantly though, her contributions to the campus at large, and the mentorship and leadership she has provided to the student body is admirable. When I think about the kind of nurse I would welcome into our profession, I think of Maggie.”

Carver then presented the next recipient of the distance learning H.C. Evans Jr. Fidelity award, Corrine Anders.

“She never expressed any doubt in her ability to finish her degree,” Carver said. “Her desire to grow, better herself, and achieve her goals drowned out any voices of self-doubt even in the face of adversity.” 

Just as fast as the ceremony had begun, following the last few announcements and the moving of the tassels from left to right, Commencement 2019 had ended but the excitement had just begun.

Both in the lobby of Williams Gymnasium and on the outside lawn, graduates were reunited with their families and friends.

Posing for photos with their diplomas in hand, the now alumni of Lees-McRae pulled in their loved ones for hugs and left campus ready to begin the next big, risky, and exciting adventure in their lives.

(Left) Graduate Mary Whiteacre poses for a photo and hugs family and friends in the lobby of Williams Gymnasium following the Commencement ceremony. (Right) With a momentary pause in the rain, graduate Ashlyn Woods also poses for a photo with her family outside on the gymnasium’s lawn.
By Nina MastandreaMay 16, 2019
CommunityAcademicsFamiliesAlumniAthleticsOnline LearningCampus Life