Sunny skies create perfect atmosphere for well-attended Class of 2023 Commencement ceremony

On the afternoon of Wednesday, May 3 every weather forecast promised the weekend ahead would be cloudy, cold, and blanketed in rain. Ceremony plans were changed, speeches were updated, and hundreds of chairs were moved across campus and indoors to accommodate the inclement weather and pull off a Commencement ceremony for the Lees-McRae Class of 2023 on Saturday, May 6. As they tend to do in the North Carolina mountains however, the clouds parted at the last minute, the sun shone down, and on the morning of Friday, May 5 the campus community sprang into action to move the ceremony back to Tate Lawn.

The Commencement ceremony, the college’s first outdoor ceremony since 2018, concluded a great weekend full of end-of-the-year celebrations in honor of the newest cohort of Bobcat alumni. From the honorary pinning at this year’s nursing white coat ceremony, to the induction of the newest members of Alpha Chi Honors Society, to another successful hooding at the Baccalaureate ceremony, each event went off without a hitch, and the Commencement ceremony itself followed suit.

The cool mountain air was buzzing with excitement that morning as graduates lined up inside Hayes Auditorium, faculty donned their regalia inside Miller Commons, and family, friends, and loved ones took their seats on Tate Lawn and prepared to celebrate their graduates.

Decorated mortar boards have been a long-standing Commencement tradition and a fun way for graduates to display their personalities (“Viva la Diva”), represent their journeys (“I’m going to save the world with my B.S.”), and thank those who have helped them achieve their goals (“My turn to take care of you mom and dad I’m a nurse!”).

These caps dotted the crowd of graduates as they settled into their seats and prepared for their last couple hours as undergraduate students. During the ceremony, President Lee King announced and awarded one of the college’s most prestigious honors, the H. C. Evans Jr. Fidelity Award. This award, named for the college’s ninth president, recognizes graduate candidates who exhibit academic excellence, campus citizenship, friendliness, leadership, and service to the college and community. Chosen by their classmates and endorsed by their faculty and administration, the winners of the Fidelity Award have come to be referred to as Mr. or Ms. Lees-McRae College.

This year two Fidelity Awards were given, one to a student graduating from the college’s online/distance learning programs, and one graduating from the college’s seated programs. The winner from the online/distance learning programs is Human Services major John Price.

“In addition to full-time class work, he has worked full-time for the past several years at Insight Recover Center as a behavioral health technician, group facilitator, and certified alcohol and drug counselor in nearby Asheville, and he did both as a loving husband and father to two young boys, both under the age of two,” King said of Price in his announcement of the award.

Following graduation from Lees-McRae, Price will continue to further his education by attending the Master of Social Work program at the University of Kentucky, after which he will continue to work in substance abuse treatment with dreams of one day opening his own therapeutic practice.

The winner of this year’s Fidelity Award from the college’s seated programs is Wildlife Biology major Charlie Ayers. Throughout his time at Lees-McRae Ayers was extremely involved on campus, serving as a resident assistant, working in The Exchange Bookstore, participating in the Lees-McRae Bird Club, acting as a camp counselor for the college’s summer wildlife camps, and more.

“He was a dedicated Wildlife Biology student who could be relied upon to challenge his peers in the classroom and in the field,” King said of Ayers in his announcement of the award. “He will expand his passion this summer by working for the North Carolina Bird Atlas, followed by travel to Peru for a bird banding internship.”

For a day dedicated to celebrating the many accomplishments of the Class of 2023, it was only fitting for this year’s Commencement speakers to be two of the class’s own graduates. Exercise Science major Raygan Rensing and Online Human Services major Makayla Gaitan delivered speeches to their peers that looked back on their journeys as students, and looked forward at all the adventures yet to come.

With a message about her own growth and the growth of her peers, Rensing’s speech discussed change. She explained the way she has changed throughout her time as a Bobcat, and how her ambitions and goals have changed with her.

"Many of us came to Lees-McRae with goals and ambitions, but somewhere along the way they may have changed, and that is okay,” Rensing said. “What I have come to realize during my time here, and hopefully you all have come to realize this as well, is that change is okay, change is necessary, and sometimes change is for the better.”

Gaitan’s speech also looked back on her own journey, and reflected on the struggles, obstacles, and setbacks that she experienced, examining them through a new lens. Gaitan told her classmates that their ability to overcome struggle and persist despite things that may otherwise hold them back is the greatest lesson they could take with them from their time at Lees-McRae.

"If I have learned anything from this experience, it would be that you are stronger than the struggles you face,” Gaitan said. “You have the power to make a difference. Greatness comes to those that are willing to take risks and push through. Life is full of challenges and there will always be something that could hold you back from pursuing your dreams and goals, but I challenge you today to do it anyway.”

Although preparations for the day may have mirrored the uncertainty and obstacles imposed on the Class of 2023’s undergraduate journey, the ceremony also represented the lessons they learned along the way. Change is okay, resilience and adaptability are great strengths, and in the end the clouds will part, and you will have a chance to enjoy your moment in the sun.

By Maya JarrellMay 09, 2023