Home Lifestyle UNC Pembroke awards 1,117 degrees at Spring Commencement

UNC Pembroke awards 1,117 degrees at Spring Commencement

Photos by UNCP

Cindy Paul first started her college journey in 1985 –– around the same year the parents of most of her UNC Pembroke classmates were born. At the time, she aspired to be a math teacher but went through a divorce, and her life took another turn. Paul dropped out after a few semesters.

“I always wanted to go back and finish,” Paul said.

In 2019, Paul returned to finish what she started, and on Saturday, she checked ‘college graduate’ from her bucket list. At 67, Paul was likely the oldest graduate at UNCP spring commencement this weekend and possibly one of the oldest in the UNC System.

Paul was among 1,117 graduates to cross the stage under a beautiful clear sky where thousands of families, friends and loved ones gathered on the quad on Saturday. The Graduate School held its ceremony outdoors Friday evening. Graduates were led in the processional by an American Indian flutist and the Lumbee Ambassadors––a commencement tradition.

“It was fantastic — very gratifying,” said Paul, who earned an American Indian Studies degree, after decades away from the classroom. “Some kids looked at me funny, but it was okay. They helped me with the computer, and I helped them with life.”

Paul’s college experience took her around the world — literally — after enrolling in an International Indigenous Exchange study abroad course, which took her to Saskatchewan, Canada and Melbourne, Australia.

“I had a ball. It was off the chart. I keep in touch with the exchange students I met there,” Paul said.

In her commencement address, U.S. Treasurer and chief of the Mohegan Tribe Lynn Malerba encouraged graduates to “uyuqômsh wuchee ôpeetak” meaning dream ahead.

“You are all here because you allowed yourselves to dream ahead,” Malerba said. “I hope you will always continue to dream ahead as you prepare to embrace the next part of your journey and for all the opportunities you have yet to imagine.”

Malerba was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws during a special hooding ceremony on Saturday. She made history in 2022 as the first American Indian to serve as Treasurer. Chief Malerba’s signature on the nation’s currency is also the first by an American Indian woman and a tribal leader.

“Whatever your career choice, make sure your work creates a positive impact,” she said.

David Conklin plans to make an impact on patient outcomes in the field of pharmacy. His next stop is High Point University’s School of Pharmacy. The Lexington native fell in love with the profession after shadowing a pharmacist during his junior year of high school.

“The professors here have been just great to me,” Conklin said. “There’s no other university that I would have rather attended. I’m going to miss the family atmosphere and the diversity. My college experience changed me. I was a quiet kid. I wasn’t outgoing, but my experience here forced me out of my comfort zone.”

Mark Yorio never considered college until his high school counselor told him he qualified for assistance through the McKinney-Vento Act for homeless youth.


Yorio, who endured a tumultuous childhood, persevered with the help of UNCP faculty and staff, who guided him throughout his pursuit of a biology degree. Yorio has been accepted into the University of Louisville’s post-baccalaureate pre-med program with plans of a career in biomedical research.

“I feel proud to an extent considering everything I’ve been through,” Yorio said. “I wouldn’t be here without the great people here at this university. The professors are so wonderfully smart. I can’t wait to take what I’ve learned and apply it in my future research. This has been the greatest five years of my life!”

Eric Savage has always been computer savvy. The Fayetteville native was building websites and programming in high school. At UNCP, Savage excelled in the computer science program and will further his studies in the computer engineering graduate program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He hopes to land a job designing apps for a computer software company.

Haleigh Grace, who comes from a long line of educators, has been accepted to the University of Tennessee Knoxville’s Ph.D. program in chemistry. She will continue the family tradition with plans to become a chemistry professor.

“I’ve always had a strong love for learning, and I’ve had an interest in figuring out how things work in nature and life,” Grace said. “I found my passion for teaching from my experience as a tutor here at UNCP, and having professors who gave me advice on how to make it to the next step in my career was very helpful.”

Life has been an uphill battle for Shuryah Barnes, who was born with Cerebral Palsy, which affects the right side of her body. However, Barnes refused to let her disability stand in the way of her dreams. She became the first in her family to graduate from college on Saturday.

“Many in my family didn’t get to have the college experience, which is one of the many reasons I decided to get my degree,” Barnes said. “College was never in my plans, but my mom convinced me to go and experience it.”

With an information technology degree — cybersecurity track — in hand, Barnes adds to the growing number of IT graduates at UNCP. The increased interest led to the recent establishment of a new Bachelor of Science in cybersecurity.

Barnes hopes to one day open a nonprofit for children with disabilities.

“I want to help others like me. I’m unsure what the future holds, but I know my college experience has been amazing. I met so many amazing people and would not have gotten this experience anywhere else.”

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