WINGATE — In the age of Covid, Dr. Russell Booker wants us to move closer together, not farther apart — at least metaphorically.
The 1991 Wingate University graduate told students at Wingate’s graduate Commencement ceremony on Wednesday that in order to be compassionate, and therefore extraordinary, they need to get “proximate” to others.
“Today’s world will require compassionate, empathetic and committed servant leaders,” Booker, a retired public-schools superintendent, told graduates. “Simply put, we need for you to be extraordinary. It is my belief that extraordinary doctors, extraordinary teachers, extraordinary caregivers and extraordinary business leaders share a common attribute: They understand the power of proximity.”
That message should resonate with the 148 students receiving their diplomas on Wednesday at 9 a.m. in the Academic Quad. The chosen careers of more than two-thirds of the grads who walked involve healthcare or education, two fields where compassion and empathy are highly encouraged.
Booker spent 28 years as an educator, including the last 10 as superintendent of Spartanburg (S.C.) District 7, before he retired in 2020. A former superintendent of the year in South Carolina, he now serves as executive director of the Spartanburg Academic Movement, a youth-oriented nonprofit organization, and is president of One Acorn, a leadership consulting firm.
Under the shade of the oak trees in the Quad, students heard about four keys for making a difference in people’s lives. Booker used the official guidance for how to mitigate the Covid pandemic as a reverse metaphor for how we should deal with others. On social distancing, he said that grads should “draw closer to people in your intersections, in your questions, in your research and in your caring.”
“If you want to be extraordinary,” he said, “don’t socially distance yourself. If we want to truly make a difference in our chosen fields, we must be willing to get proximate to the people we are serving.”
Booker said that we need to remove our metaphorical masks “to allow those you are serving to see the real you.”
He added that he became accustomed to habitually washing his hands during the pandemic, but warned against simply washing our hands “of someone or something.”
“If you want to be extraordinary, find space for grace,” he said.
As for isolating and quarantining, Booker admitted the necessity of it at times during the pandemic – especially when he tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this year – but, he said, the quarantining people naturally do with “people who look and think just like me” is a hindrance. “If you want to be extraordinary, leave your bubble and find ways to meet people where they are,” he said.
Forty percent of students (60 total) who walked across the stage today received doctor of pharmacy degrees. Thirty-two students were among the first cohort of doctor of occupational degree recipients, while 25 received master of arts in sport management degrees. Other students received MBAs (13), doctorates and master’s in education (seven) and master of accounting degrees (seven).
Renata Neko Sims took a long road to her doctorate. After five years of dealing with work challenges, a family illness and an unforeseen bump in the road with her dissertation, Sims finally received her Ed.D in higher education executive leadership. She earned the degree in December but chose to walk in the spring.
“I didn’t have time to cry or wallow or even think about what was going on, because I was so focused on finishing,” she says. “When you’re working on a doctoral degree, everybody has their battle scars. All of us have our own stories of things that happened that we did not expect. It takes a lot of grit and perseverance to endure and push forward, and just by the grace of God helping me to move forward, I finished.”
Sims, who teaches public speaking at York Technical College, has no plans at the moment to leave the classroom but is glad she endured and now has her doctorate in her back pocket when the time comes to move into administration.
“When I was walking across the stage I almost broke down and started crying,” she says, “because I was thinking about the journey.”
Wingate’s Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) program conferred degrees on 32 women in its first ever cohort. Several OTD graduates were recognized for winning program awards, including Jalynn Parnell, winner of the OTD Leadership Award. Parnell will take her skills back to her hometown of Darlington, S.C., where she’s been offered positions as a school OT and as an OT at the agency where she did her fieldwork.
“Now I just have to decide, and I have to study for boards,” Parnell said.
She said being part of Wingate’s inaugural OTD class was “absolutely amazing.”
“Talk about girl power and feminism,” she said. “It was just an incredible opportunity for us to shine as women, and I really feel like we left our mark. The level of leadership throughout the entire class was outstanding.”
Early in her Wingate career, Parnell took a role as ambassador for Wingate’s chapter of the Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity. Realizing that only 4 percent of OTs are African-American, Parnell contacted undergrads at predominantly black colleges to encourage them to pursue careers in health sciences. She’s also served as a mentor and role model for high school students in her hometown.
“A lot of high school students have reached out to me for inspiration, so I feel like I am leaving that legacy for them,” Parnell said.
The OTD program presented several other individual awards: to Leah Ronner (Service Award), McKenzie Bolin (Scholarship Award), Savannah Ange (Outstanding Fieldwork Student) and Melanie Smith (Outstanding Doctoral Capstone Student).
OTD also recognized McKenzie Muse for being a Charlotte Area Health Education Center Scholar and Rachel Keen for being selected to attend the AOTF Institute for Future Scientists in Occupational Therapy. The program also recognized two community members: Michele Molina (Outstanding Fieldwork Educator Award) and Joy Simon (Outstanding Capstone Site Mentor).
The School of Pharmacy presented Mikayla Wilkins of Forest City, North Carolina, with the Lilly Achievement Award, which goes to the pharmacy valedictorian.