The Ferrum College campus was brilliantly sunny, chilly, and quiet during its 104th commencement ceremony on May 9, 2020, a day usually filled with activity, excitement, and crowds of family and friends.
Still, 199 seniors from 14 different states were honored during the ceremony that was streamed online. The college was forced to postpone its traditional in-person graduation event due to the novel coronavirus.
Although the delivery was different, the commencement exercises remained generally the same. The program began with a slideshow of the graduates, and President David L. Johns and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Aimé Sposato continued the tradition of ringing the large bell on campus to signify the start of the ceremony. The keynote address was brought by retired Professor Emeritus of Biology and Horticulture Bob Pohlad.
Virtual attendees were welcomed by Sposato, as she noted that “commencements are often thought of as bittersweet endings but today we are truly celebrating new beginnings.”
“You have overcome many obstacles throughout your four years here,” Sposato told the graduates. “But none more so than what you have overcome in just the past seven weeks. As you embark on your next journey – to graduate school, internships, a new job – this is truly your moment to shine.”
Following the invocation given by Dean of Chapel Jan Nicholson Angle, Johns offered a greeting, telling the graduates, “against all odds, and in the face of enormous challenges, Class of 2020, you made it! Nothing is going to stand in our way today, of celebrating and honoring you, and nothing is going to stand in your way of achieving your dreams.”
Johns said, “We all know, now more than ever, that great achievement comes from teamwork. It requires a group effort. Graduates, in addition to your own hard work and determination, the love and support that you’ve received from your family and friends helped to bring you to this moment.
“Amazing things happen here at Ferrum College each and every day, sometimes in big and splashy ways, but very often in small, quiet, and incremental ways,” Johns said. “And before you know it, here we are, gathered in this virtual space, a place between where you are this moment and where I stand this morning. A ‘together’ space. Transformation has happened. Your life has changed. Your future is about to begin.”
Ferrum College Board of Trustees chair Phyllis Karavatakis ’76, and Alumni Association President Twyla Tatum ’04, each gave greetings on behalf of their respective boards.
After thanking Ferrum College staff members for their dedication during the global pandemic, Sposato recognized nine distinguished faculty members with 212 years of combined service in teaching at the College: Seasonal Director of Technical Services in Library Sciences Peggy Barker; Professor of Economics Rathin Basu; Assistant Professor of English Karen Duddy; Professor of English John Kitterman; Associate Professor of English Melvin Macklin; Assistant Professor of Marketing Michele “Micky” Naff; Associate Professor of Accounting and Business Christine Stinson; Associate Professor of Social Work Jennie West; and Assistant Professor of Sociology Peg Wimmer.
The rank of Faculty Emeritus was bestowed upon the following retirees: Professor of Philosophy Gary Angel; Professor of Theatre Arts Harold Wayne Bowman; Professor of English John Bruton; Professor of Biology and Horticulture Bob Pohlad; Associate Professor of History C. Milton Rowan; Professor of Biology and Environmental Science Carolyn Thomas; Professor of History Mike Trochim; and Professor of Business Demetri Tsanacas.
In the presentation of awards, Jennie West received the Exemplary Faculty Award, which recognizes a full-time faculty member at Ferrum College who exemplifies excellence and commitment to teaching. West was described by her colleagues as one who “always leads by example, educates future professionals, challenges them, and opens their perspectives to different world views to make them more observant, knowledgeable, open-minded individuals as they grow and learn through their journey and education at Ferrum College.”
Students said that West was a friend who made them feel heard and at home, but pushed them out of their comfort zones. West is retiring this year, after 25 years of teaching at Ferrum College.
Assistant Vice President of Academic Affairs Kevin Reilly announced that Christopher Michael Stone of Ferrum received the Senior Academic Excellence Award. This award is based on grades earned in all college courses by a full-time student, including those taken at Ferrum, as well as those received in transfer from other colleges or universities. Stone maintained a 4.0 GPA and earned a Bachelor of Science in liberal studies.
Layura Henley ’20, from Wytheville, received the Arthur S. Owens Leadership Award, which is presented annually to the senior chosen by the faculty who best exemplifies the qualities of leadership, initiative, honor, and outstanding character. Recipients of this award must also hold an excellent academic record, have participated in extra-curricular activities, and shown creative initiative in making Ferrum College a better place to study, work, and live. Henley triple majored, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in pre-professional health studies, biology, and health sciences.
Following the awards presentations, Professor of Environmental Science and Chair of the Natural Science Division Delia Heck introduced Pohlad. He spoke about the unique graduation ceremonies he and his late wife, Carolyn Thomas, had attended over their 41 years as professors at Ferrum College. Some included heat, rain, and even one snowstorm. He acknowledged that none of those commencements had ever been as unique as this year. “You are the virtual commencement class of 2020! Embrace it! You will always be remembered for it. It may even be a key to your next job,” he said. “We all must embrace the opportunities and experiences that we have had with each other. They make us who we are. We are Ferrum Strong and we adapt.”
Pohlad ended his speech with a bit of advice for the graduates, saying, “As you go out from here with your degree in hand, accept the challenges ahead with confidence and strength, knowing your Ferrum family is here for you. Cling to your memories but use what you learned in your last four years to excel. We are excited to watch you soar!”
Student Government Association President Mikayla Moreno ’21, of Newport, N.C., then introduced Senior Class Vice President Layura Henley ’20. Henley announced that the class of 2020 had chosen to give spotlights to shine on the Panther statue outside of Franklin Hall as the senior class gift. Henley then introduced Senior Class President Caitlin Hodges ’20 as the senior class speaker.
After thanking the class of 2020 for being asked to speak, Hodges told the graduates that “each of you has a niche in the world, and it’s unlike any other person’s niche and it suits you perfectly. However, it may not be easy to attain and it may even seem impossible to start the journey. Vocation is a choice that each person has to make on their own. It is your choice to tell the world you who are.”
She ended her speech by telling the graduates that “Panthers don’t settle, and we do not take the path of least resistance. So, go on, go out into the world and make it one you want to live in.”
After the conferring and awarding of degrees by Johns and Sposato, the Panther Band performed the College’s “Alma Mater” under the direction of Sixto Montesinos, assistant professor of music and director of bands.
The ceremony closed with eight celebrity guest appearances by actor Ty Burrell of the television show Modern Family; comedian Joel McHale of The Soup, Community, and Card Sharks; author David Baldacchi; Ferrum College alumnus, actor, writer, and producer Mike McColl ’93; actor Graham Phillips of Riverdale and The Good Wife; actor Jamie McShane of Sons of Anarchy; Murder in the First; and Bloodline; comedian Keegan Michael Key; and actor Connor Trinneer of Star Trek Enterprise.
Along with the in-person commencement ceremony, the traditional baccalaureate service and candlelight ceremony, normally held on Friday evening before graduation, was also postponed due to the coronavirus. The College has plans to reschedule both events.
Ferrum College President David Johns participates in the college’s 104th commencement ceremony, held virtually this year due to COVID-19.