Every May and December universities across the state celebrate the success of their graduates and invite commencement speakers to deliver some final words of wisdom. Students sit in cap and gown in the midst of their peers. There is usually an air of hope in the room as people nervously shift in their seats, or look out to find proud family members in the audience. After years of effort students gather to receive their diplomas, and listen to one final speech on behalf of their school.
“The primary purpose of the commencement speech is to inspire students,” said Jeff Atkinson, director of marketing and communications at Wingate University. “This is the last time that a class of students will be together, and it is our final opportunity to collectively offer words of wisdom to the class. “We take this opportunity seriously and want this moment to be very meaningful to our graduates and their families.”
None of the North Carolina Baptist affiliated schools – The College at Southeastern and Fruitland Baptist Bible College, along with Campbell, Chowan, Gardner-Webb, Mars Hill and Wingate universities – have a requirement that the speaker must be Baptist.
For many graduation offers not only a rite of passage into a new beginning, but a farewell from an institution that may have changed lives.
This year, from the spring semester alone 1,986 students graduated with bachelors, associates and certificates from universities and colleges with North Carolina Baptist ties.
N.C. Baptist affiliated schools take a variety of strategies when choosing a commencement speaker, but most would agree that choosing a speaker who reflects the school’s values is one of the top priorities.
“We try to have individuals [speakers] who appreciate higher education, value faith and are interested in service,” Atkinson said, “someone who cares deeply about students and our mission.
“We want to invite someone who will invoke our students to live out the faith, knowledge and service mission of our university in their lives beyond Wingate.”
Chowan University often alternates between guest and student speakers. They invited Sen. Richard Burr to speak at their 2013 commencement and in 2014 some of the best and brightest students were chosen to highlight the vast range of majors and talents at the university.
At Gardner-Webb University students are recommended every semester by the faculty, department chairs and deans. From the recommendations three or four are chosen from varying areas and levels of study to write speeches reflecting their educational journey and experience.
Britt J. Davis, vice president of institutional advancement and assistant to the president at Campbell University said, “We are generally looking for someone who we believe has the character and qualities of someone who represents Campbell as a Baptist university and community. Speakers in the past have included military leaders, government officials, church leaders, Campbell officials, benefactors and alumni.”
The commencement speaker is meant to inspire the graduates “to go out and change the world for Christ,” said Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary’s president, Daniel Akin. The school also keeps in mind the lost people who attend services in support of friends and family, and makes a point to communicate the gospel clearly on their behalf.