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Two-hundred thirty graduating seniors from the College of Arts & Sciences gathered in Templeton Gymnasium on Saturday. Their proud guests, faculty and staff members were with them, too, eager to watch them walk across the stage during the 136th Commencement of Presbyterian College.

President Bob Staton welcomed everyone to the event and shared what he told the graduates during Opening Convocation during their freshman year. Four years ago, he welcomed the students to a new phase of their lives, one in which they had freedom and responsibility. He said he felt a closeness to the class because he became president during their freshman year.

President Staton said professors, coaches and staff members would help the students grow and instill PC’s values of community, excellence, honor and service in each of them.

Today as I have the privilege of handing you your diploma,” President Staton said, “it is evident to me and all of those here to celebrate your accomplishments that you have grown.

So as you receive your diploma and move forward with your life, go forward committed to being passionate about all you do and making our world a better place.”

President Staton cautioned the students that life won’t always be easy. He told them they’ll be defined by how they respond to life’s challenging times.

In those moments, pick yourself up, rely on your faith, the values that you have developed at PC, learn from the experience and move forward with passion and confidence,” he said. “I encourage you to go out and serve and inspire the world. Make a positive difference in the lives of others.”

Staton recognized several faculty members after addressing the graduating seniors.

Two faculty members received promotions. Dr. Eli Owens was granted tenure and promoted to associate professor of physics. Dr. Brooke Spatta was promoted to professor of psychology.

Dr. Evelyn Swain, associate professor of chemistry, was awarded the 2019 Robert H. Freymeyer Award for Meritorious Scholarship. The Freymeyer Award is given annually to a full-time faculty member for distinguished work in research, scholarship or artistic creation.

Swain has taught in PC’s chemistry department since 2013. An active researcher in biochemistry, she has been a leader in developing the accreditation for the College’s biochemistry program. Swain led the PC Summer Fellows research program and has worked with students in her research as well as developing their own projects.

Dr. Jaclyn Sumner, assistant professor of history, was awarded the first-ever President Emeritus Dr. Kenneth B. Orr Faculty Research Fellowship. Dr. Orr served as President of PC for 18 years, from 1979 to 1997. The Orr Faculty Research Fellowship reflects his recognition that the student research and academic rigor we celebrate at PC depend on the faculty, the mentors who inspire their students and expect excellence in their studies. Sumner, who has taught at PC since 2014, will use this award to develop new courses in the history department and to complete research related to her interests in Latin American history.

Also during the event, Justin Davidson, Kristin Miller and Clay Wright were recognized as valedictorians of the Class of 2019. The valedictory award recognizes graduating seniors who attained the highest academic average at the collegiate level.

E.G. Lassiter, the chairman of the PC Board of Trustees, presented Mike LeFever ’69 with the Doctor of Public Service, honoris causa.

LeFever served as president and CEO of the South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities from 2008 to 2018. Before SCICU, he served as the director of four state agencies, including the Workers’ Compensation Commission for 13 years. LeFever also served as Deputy Chief of Staff for Executive Office Programs and Cabinet Affairs for Gov. Jim Hodges.

Last October, LeFever received the Order of the Palmetto, South Carolina’s highest award.

During his Outstanding Senior of the Year address, Lance Harvey talked about the importance of investing in yourself when he shared with the audience the lowest point of his time at PC. He was a freshman and was struggling academically.

I was losing my desire to learn and to achieve,” Harvey said. “I was facing the possible reality of losing my scholarship, receiving a low G.P.A. and not earning enough credits to become a sophomore.”

Harvey thought about dropping out of school. He even questioned “the Lord’s ultimate plan” for his life.

Fortunately, individuals were willing to invest themselves into my success,” Harvey said. “Many recognized my academic potential and capability.”

Harvey’s roommate noticed Harvey was struggling and helped him.

He challenged me to study, to open my mind and to explore all my strengths,” Harvey said. “He encouraged me to achieve academically, to utilize my campus resources and most importantly to trust in the Lord for guidance.”

Harvey’s roommate’s help made all the difference in the world to him.

From that semester onwards, I transformed as a student,” Harvey said. “I no longer questioned my situation. I took ownership of my life without any complaints.”

Harvey changed his major and invested in his academics. He became passionate about learning again. He says he owes it to those who invested in him.

I will never owe my success exclusively upon my academic merit. I owe my success to the glory of God, caring faculty, my family and friends,” Harvey said.

Many individuals on this campus and in my life directed me towards my vocational realization. Like the statue placed in front of Greenville Dining Hall, we can lift others towards their path of achievement.”

Harvey concluded his address by asking his classmates to continue to invest in themselves and in others too.

Continue to invest in your future, continue to invest in the success of others and continue to invest your relationship with God,” Harvey said.

Ms. Lesley Preston, professor of theater and 2019 Professor of the Year, asked the graduates to stay young during her Commencement speech.

In May of 1974, I graduated with a B.A. in theater (my parents were so happy when I chose my major), and everyone was asking me what I was going to do next. Sound familiar?

Today, I am anticipating my ‘graduation’ into retirement. People are again asking what’s next, and in a plot twist worthy of a Disney movie, I have the same answer: I am going to Scotland.

In 1974 the answer was part of my newly developed Piglet strategy of coping. You see, Piglet is the character in Winnie the Pooh that I feel closest to. He is little, and actually afraid of lots of things, but he really wants to do well and he doesn’t want to let his friends down. My Piglet strategy? Just say that you are going to do something, even if it is really scary, and then you have to do it otherwise you’re letting people down.

So I took the return plane ticket that was my graduation present, the $800 that I had saved for my Very Grand Adventure, and went. I didn’t have a place to stay, or a job to go to, and although I had some family left in Scotland, I hadn’t seen them since I was five. But I went. It was easy. I was young.

This time, it is much harder. I have a house to sell, a dog who is coming with me, friends I have to leave behind, social security to figure out, and a bunch of stuff. I have second thoughts. I am no longer young. But you are.

After four (-ish) years in college finding and refining your voice, you are now ready to use it in the ‘real world.’ You are leaving your PC just like A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin had to leave his PC, Pooh Corner.

“‘Christopher Robin, who was looking at the world, with his chin in his hand, called out ‘Pooh!’ ‘Yes?’ said Pooh. ‘I’m not going to do Nothing any more.’ ‘Never again?’ ‘Well, not so much. They don’t let you.’ … Still, with his eyes on the world, Christopher Robin put out a hand and felt Pooh’s paw. ‘Pooh,’ said Christopher Robin earnestly, ‘if I – if I’m not quite –‘ he stopped and tried again – ‘Pooh, whatever happens, you will understand, won’t you?’ ‘Understand what?’ ‘Oh, nothing.’ He laughed and jumped to his feet. ‘Come on!’ ‘Where?’ said Pooh. ‘Anywhere.’ said Christopher Robin.

This passage forms the basis for the opening of Disney’s recent movie Christopher Robin. Christopher Robin is leaving childhood behind and going to boarding school where he will no longer be allowed to do Nothing. In the movie we see him grow up, go to college, get married, have a child, fight in World War II and become an efficiency expert. He never goes back to visit his friends in Pooh Corner, and he has absorbed the lesson that being a grown-up means leaving childhood behind.

I would like to argue, as the movie does, that having a successful and fulfilling life means exactly the opposite. Embrace your youth. Being young means being filled with joy, being impatient for change, being open to imagining new possibilities. Being young is powerful.

Today might feel a little bit sad because a part of your life is ending, but it is also joyful because you are Commencing your Grand Adventure, your new lives, and adventures should always be started with joy.

Or, to put it in Pooh terms:

“‘What day is it?’ asked Pooh.

“‘It’s today,’ squeaked Piglet.

“‘My favorite day,’ said Pooh.’

Kimberly Hampton, PC ’98, lived her life to the fullest and with joy. She graduated with honors in English, captained the women’s tennis team to three consecutive South Atlantic tournament titles while remaining undefeated in three years of conference singles play, and won the SAC awards for Women’s Tennis Player of the Year in 1997 and 1998, and Female Athlete of the Year in 1998.

She became only the second woman to serve as PC’s ROTC battalion commander. After graduation, she served in South Korea and Afghanistan as a combat helicopter pilot and became the commander of Delta Troop, 1st Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment. Kimberly died in Iraq on Jan. 2, 2004 when, her Kiowa helicopter was shot down near Fallujah.

She was the first female military pilot in United States history to be shot down and killed as a result of hostile fire. She was also the first female combat casualty in Iraq from South Carolina.

I didn’t know Kimberly, but in 2014, when the theater department decided to create a documentary play about her life, we spoke to many people still here at PC who remembered her and her joy for life. We also worked closely with her mother, Ann, who shared this email, sent shortly before she was shot down:

“‘If anything ever happens to me, you can be certain that I am doing the things I love. I’m living my dreams for sure—living life on the edge at times and pushing the envelope. But, I’m doing things others only dream about from the safety and comfort of home. I wouldn’t trade this life for anything—I truly love it! So, worry if you must, but you can be sure that your only child is living a full, exciting life and is happy!

Kimberly followed her childhood dream to fly helicopters, and while she was on this earth, she was a presence to be felt.

Alexander Hamilton, recently voted most popular founding father by Broadway enthusiasts, was also a presence to be felt. He immigrated to America alone at age 15, fought at Washington’s side in the Revolution, helped ensure the ratification of the Constitution, and saved the United States from financial ruin, all before he was 33. He was impatient for change.

The Parkland students who have refused to be polite and quiet about the changes they want to see in society are also rightfully impatient. They, like you, are young. They see no reason to wait for change. Listen to Emma Gonzalez, 18 years old and speaking to the President of the United States:

“’Every single person up here today, all these people should be home grieving. But instead we are up here standing together because if all our government and president can do is send ‘thoughts and prayers,’ then it’s time for victims to be the change that we need to see.’

Impatience can be powerful.

Back in Pooh Corner we have me:

“‘By the time it came to the edge of the Forest, the stream had grown up, so that it was almost a river, and, being grown-up, it did not run and jump and sparkle along as it used to do when it was younger, but moved more slowly. For it knew now where it was going, and it said to itself, ‘There is no hurry. We shall get there some day.’

And you:

“‘But all the little streams higher up in the Forest went this way and that, quickly, eagerly, having so much to find out before it was too late.’

Much to find out. Your openness to new ideas, to dialogue, and to sharing is another source of power. I see it at work in my classroom. At your best, you listen to each other and lift each other up. You don’t always agree, but you don’t let it turn you away from each other.  To quote Ariana Klein, another of the Parkland activists:

“‘… everybody right now is so stuck on what they believe, that they’re not even listening to what other people believe. We need to listen to the other points of view. This solution is not going to be a singular thing. It’s going to be multifaceted, and it’s going to be created by a collection of different people working together. And this is not just Parkland anymore; this is America.’

Your youth, your joy, your impatience, your imagination, these are our hope for the future (no pressure). So Piglet up and own it. Now, right here, is the time to believe in your power to change the world, as President Obama called us to do in his farewell address.

Listen to his words:

“‘Hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes We Can.’

Or to put it another way, now is the time to ‘rise up’ and be

just like your country

young, scrappy and hungry

And not throw away your shot.’

I hope that you can keep the joyous momentum of impatient youth for a long time. And if you occasionally need help and my Piglet strategy is not working for you PC will be here, your Pooh Corner, ready to reunite you with your youthful self – isn’t that what Homecoming is all about? For A.A. Milne reassures us that:

“‘wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.’

The red balloon bounces its way through Christopher Robin as his childhood friends come back into his life. In her review of the movie, Sister Rose Paquette makes this observation about its significance:

“‘The red balloon symbolizes the freedom of childhood that Christopher needs to remember so that he can be happy in himself and be a good husband and father. The film shows that problems get solved when there is inner freedom marked by imagination, a creative spirit, love, family and friendship.

In House at Pooh Corner, Piglet plans to give Eeyore a red balloon for his birthday, but he is impatient to get to the party and falls and bursts the balloon on the way to Eeyore’s house. Meanwhile, Pooh eats all the honey out of the pot that he was bringing. Disaster. But then Eeyore uses his imagination and turns what could be a Very Disappointing Birthday into a joyous one.

“‘Why!’ said Eeyore. ‘I believe my Balloon will just go into that Pot!’

“‘Oh, no, Eeyore,’ said Pooh. ‘Balloons are much too big to go into Pots. What you do with a balloon is, you hold the balloon.’

“‘Not mine,’ said Eeyore proudly. ‘Look, Piglet!’ And as Piglet looked sorrowfully round, Eeyore picked the balloon up and placed it carefully in the pot; picked it out and put it on the ground; and then picked it up again and put it carefully back. … ‘It goes in and out like anything.’

“‘I’m very glad,’ said Pooh happily, ‘that I thought of giving you a Useful Pot to put things in.’

“‘I’m very glad,’ said Piglet happily, ‘that I thought of giving you something to put in a Useful Pot.’

But Eeyore wasn’t listening. He was taking the balloon out, and putting it back again, as happy as could be…

If you forget what it is to be joyful or you become content to wait it out, or you get stuck inside a box and can’t find your imagination, I’d like you to remember this day, visualize this red balloon rising above Neville and believe in your power.

In the words of Nobel Laureate (and who saw that coming?) Bob Dylan,

May your hands always be busy

May your feet always be swift

For you have a strong foundation

When the winds of changes shift

May your heart always be joyful

May your song always be sung

And may you stay forever young

Forever young

Forever young

May you stay forever young.