Saturday, 22 May 2021 18:32

UNCP graduates encouraged to pursue a passion that ignites 'fire in the belly'

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PEMBROKE — Michelle Scott's road to earning a teaching degree was marked with unimaginable grief and heartache. 


Scott lost both parents, a year apart, but never stopped pushing herself. She relied on words her mother would often repeat to get her through tough times with every reason to give up. 

"She would always tell me an education is one thing no one can take away from you." 

On Saturday, an emotional Scott crossed the stage, joining 1,045 of her fellow graduates at spring commencement at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. With all its pomp and circumstance and processional led by the Lumbee ambassadors and flutist, the outdoor exercises were a welcome return to a sense of normalcy for thousands of family and friends gathered along the balloon-filled Quad. 

Keynote speaker and Pembroke native Sheila Cummings is a highly successful founder and owner of an aerospace engineering firm in Alabama, though it wasn't in her plans. She enrolled in the pre-engineering program at UNCP after a recruiter crushed her dreams of becoming an Air Force pilot. 

"What that recruiter did for me that day was to ignite what I refer to as 'the fire in my belly­’— the drive that gets you up every day determined to make a difference," Cummings told the graduates. 

Cummings went on to earn her aerospace engineering degree, and, in 2009, she opened Cummings Aerospace — a company dedicated to delivering engineering solutions to the U.S. Department of Defense. 

"Every day, I get to live out my dream of serving the military, just not the way I originally planned. Graduates, pursue your passion relentlessly. Develop your definition of success and find your voice and use it for good.” 

After serving six and a half years in the Army, Taja Flagg is looking forward to starting her new career as a pediatric nurse. She enrolled in UNCP's nursing program, determined to fulfill her passion after an autoimmune disorder diagnosis sidelined her from practicing nursing in the military.  

"I feel extremely blessed to have this opportunity to come back to school and earn my nursing degree," said the Raeford resident and a single mother of three. "UNCP gave me my start. The instructors guided me along the way and made sure I had the resources I needed to be successful. It was a privilege to be accepted into this program, and it means a lot to finish the program and say, 'we made it’!"  

She recently accepted a position in the surgical/pediatric unit at UNC Rex Hospital in Raleigh.  

Chancellor Robin Gary Cummings told the graduates that despite being surrounded by uncertainty this past year, they kept a positive attitude and remained focused on their goals. 

"You chose to fight, to persist, to adapt, to persevere. You didn't succumb and retreat when every day a new fear was introduced into our vocabulary. Your presence here today is testimony to your determination to achieve. Always be led by your dreams, not pushed by circumstances or by fear," Dr. Cummings said. 

Cummings' parting advice to the Class of 2021 was to find success in life but also look for significance. 

"Be the person you were called to be—who you've hoped to be—and create a world that's not only better for you, but each other." 

While many graduates will enter the workforce or enlist in the military, others like Dhyaneshwar Sudhakar will further their studies in master's level and Ph.D. programs. A native of Chennai, India, Sudhakar has been accepted to Johns Hopkins University in the Master of Arts in Film and Sound program. He plans to pursue his passion for writing for film and television shows.  

"UNCP has helped me in identifying what I want to do with my future career and how I should prepare for it," he said. 

James "Wells" Graham of Laurinburg graduated with magna cum laude honors and will extend his academic journey in Wake Forest University's physics Ph.D. program. He's considering research in the field of experimental condensed matter physics. 

Dustin Paul, who earned his business degree, will take a short break before returning to UNCP in the fall to begin the Master of Business Administration program. His goal is to become a financial analyst. 

"I would love to retire early, purchase some rental properties and flip houses," said Paul of Lumberton. "I am also thinking about being a professor and teaching business courses online." 

He credits his success to the guidance provided by the business faculty and his participation in mock interviews, resume workshops and the Passport to Professional Success Program. 

Seauna Richardson loves her job as a second-grade teacher. Still, to make a more significant impact on students' lives in Robeson County, she chose to seek an advanced degree, opening up the door to one day becoming a literacy coach. 

"We struggle with a literacy deficit in this county. So, I wanted the opportunity to expand my horizons outside the classroom," said Richardson, who earned a master's degree in reading education.  

Richardson, raised in public housing in South Lumberton, went to college out of high school but put her dreams on hold to help her mother make ends meet. Ten years later, and married with three children, Richardson completed her bachelor's degree at N.C. Central University while working full time. 

She faced more bumps in the road with the passing of her sister, while pursuing her graduate degree at UNCP. 

"Life has taught me to push through. Without the strong support system here at UNCP and home, I wouldn't have finished this program. It was tough, but well worth the ride. I'm excited about the future." 

Isaiah Maher graduated with his best friend and fiancé, Kasey Cooper, earning degrees in biology and elementary education, respectively. The couple has set a wedding date for November. 

Tiffany Bramblett Simpson worked 10 years in the banking industry before enrolling at UNCP to pursue a degree in analytical chemistry. Simpson, a RISE Fellow, overcame adversity and personal challenges during her studies.  

"There were a ton of sleepless nights, many tears and a head full of doubt. But with each obstacle that came my way, I was able to face it with optimism knowing that no matter how hard things were, I had my UNCP family there to help guide me along the way.  

"I had so many advantages that students at larger universities do not, such as small class sizes with lots of opportunities to interact with faculty including the opportunity to conduct and present my research," Simpson said. 

This fall, Simpson will pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry at Florida State University, one of the country's top analytical chemistry graduate schools.  

Scott, still coping with the loss of her parents Raymond and Jackie, did experience joy during her UNCP journey with the birth of her son. More good news came last month when she was offered a position teaching kindergarten at Rockfish Hoke Elementary. 

"Today was definitely a moment of relief. There were a lot of emotions. I wanted to quit after my mom died. During the days I felt like I couldn't go on, the education department faculty and my friends and family pushed me. I wouldn't have been able to do this alone."