Nothing could stand in the way of more than 4,500 West Virginia University students earning their rite of passage this Commencement weekend (May 12-14).
Showered by the pride and support of fellow classmates, loved ones, mentors and the hugs of President Gordon Gee, many of WVU’s newest graduates walked across that grand stage in 17 ceremonies that capped off this leg of their collegiate careers.
For Chelsea Bragg, cancer could not hinder her journey.
At age 23, and just one year into the histotechnology program, Bragg was diagnosed with metastatic thyroid cancer. She underwent a complete thyroidectomy, including the removal of several lymph nodes, and radiation treatment during a semester.
She did not miss a single class or lab.
“I was so close to finally receiving my degree, and I wasn’t going to let a diagnosis take that away from me,” said Bragg, who earned her bachelor’s degree in medical laboratory science with an emphasis in histotechnology. “As I crossed the stage, I thought about everything I overcame to achieve this degree.”
And what a day to do it. The Newell native walked in the School of Medicine Professionals ceremony on Sunday, Mother’s Day. Bragg’s mother also is a cancer survivor, having raised her and two siblings while working a full-time job.
“My mom helped me get through every exhausting moment,” Bragg said. “I’ve thanked her so many times for listening to me complain about how tired and exhausted I was. I knew that once the treatment was over I would finally start to feel better and that’s another thing that always kept me going.”
Now 24, Bragg is preparing for her next move – a job as a histotechnologist at WVU Medicine’s J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital. There she will assist in the process of detecting diseases and infections in patient tissue specimens.
For another Class of 2017 member, nearly 7,000 miles and the Pacific Ocean couldn’t keep him from his moment in the sun.
Matt Freed traveled all the way from Jinzhou, China to Morgantown to participate in Commencement. He estimated traveling for at least 24 hours, with one nonstop 14-hour flight.
Freed earned his Regents Bachelor of Arts degree from the College of Education and Human Services. He completed his degree online and had to make accommodations for the 12-hour time difference, which he described as one challenge throughout the process.
Freed teaches English as a second language at a medical university in Jinzhou and wanted to earn his degree to expand his teaching opportunities abroad.
“The rest of the world is wide open now, Freed said. “That’s what I’m really excited about.”
A ‘Lovely Day’
In addition to the sea of graduating students, five trailblazing individuals received honorary awards from WVU for their talents and lifetime achievements.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Bill Withers, who recorded several major hits such as “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Just the Two of Us,” “Lean on Me” and “Lovely Day,” received an honorary doctorate in music from the College of Creative Arts.
Withers, who was born in Slab Fork, West Virginia and now lives in California, was also in attendance to give new College of Creative Arts graduates some words of wisdom to lean on.
“Your first duty is to create a value for yourself,” Withers said. “You have chosen the arts which has often and sometimes aptly been described as a wonderful way to turn manic depression into money!
“Dreams are the birthplace of future realities. They are also the birthplace of future futilities. So dream practically. Try to make honest assessments of your talents and possibilities. Wasting time in pursuit of the impossible is as just as sinful as the squandering of a gift.”
An iconic singer-songwriter, Withers grew up in a small, coal mining town with a stutter. He joined the Navy and later worked as a milkman and an assembler for companies including Douglas Aircraft Corporation before hitting households with his popular songs. When he debuted “Ain’t No Sunshine,” he stuck with his assembly job for a while believing that the music business might be a fickle industry.
Joining Withers in attaining an honorary degree this year was Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Margie Mason, a 1997 WVU Reed College of Media graduate. Mason was part of an investigative team of reporters that exposed a slave island in Indonesia where fishermen were held in cages and forced to work for years. Their reporting earned them numerous accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize, the highest award in journalism.
“It’s hard to believe, but 20 years ago this very Mother’s Day weekend, I sat out there in the Coliseum ready to take on the world,” said Mason, a Daybrook native, reflecting on her graduation. “I remember taping a sign across my mortarboard that read: PAGE 1-A. I desperately wanted my stories to fill the front pages of America’s newspapers, but growing up in a holler just 25 miles west of here, I never dreamed that one day those stories would lead me back to Morgantown for an opportunity to speak to all of you. But here we are.”
Mason offered pointed advice for this year’s Reed College graduates as she noted that journalists and communicators are needed now more than ever as “Americans’ trust for the media is at an all-time low.”
“We have been declared an ‘enemy of the American people’ by the president of the United States, and everyday real stories are called ‘fake news’ and fake news stories are called real. Everything is so spun and twisted and distorted, it’s difficult to know what’s really true anymore.
“And that is why I’m so happy to see all of you sitting out there today. Even if you’re not planning to work as a journalist, you are still guided by the same principles. Our currency is in words and communication, and we must all seek truth, fairness and balance in whatever we do. Remember: At the end of the day, your credibility is all you have, so guard it closely.”
This year’s honorary degree recipients also included:
– Don Panoz, Doctor of Business, College of Business and Economics. He is an entrepreneur who made his name in pharmaceuticals and as an owner of various motorsport ventures.
– Jayne Anne Phillips, Doctor of Humane Letters, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. She is an American novelist and short story writer from Buckhannon.
– Kathryn Vecellio, Presidential Doctor of Counseling Psychology, College of Education and Human Services. She graduated from the College with a bachelor’s in biological sciences in 1971 and a master’s in guidance and counseling in 1972. Vecellio is a noted community leader and philanthropist in her native West Virginia and Florida, where she currently resides.
The following is a collection of various quotes from the weekend’s Commencement speakers:
- “Be a crazy person. Dream big and change the world.” – Clay Marsh, Health Sciences Center vice president.
- “No doubt for many, this many seem like a finish line. This may sound cliché, but here’s the truth – rather than a finish line, this is actually a starting block.” – Sam England, chief of parks and recreation with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.
- “I suggest you find your own sense of purpose. It’s a personal journey, according to comedian George Carlin, who told of going to a bookstore and asking the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’ She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose. So, today, the bad news is you don’t have a sense of purpose yet. The good news? You are young, you are educated and you have a challenge. That is all you need.” – Woody Thrasher, West Virginia secretary of commerce.
- “As you move through this life, I want you to be aware that your character is always on display. Who you are doesn’t stop on graduation day. Your character will speak to your work ethic, how you conduct yourself on the job and how well you can play with others. Your character is the force behind your achievement.” – Frank Devono, superintendent of Monongalia County Schools.
- “Live simply. Love generously. Care deeply. Speak kindly. Leave the rest to God.” – Gordon Gee, WVU president.