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Chancellor Reminisces in Preparation of Spring Commencement

The graduation ceremony was a sea of light blue caps and gowns at the campus of UNC Chapel Hill. In the air was an electricity of overwhelming excitement, relief that the stress of college was over and nostalgia for the friendships and experiences gained during the students’ time at the university.

Robin G. Cummings was a graduate, present at the commencement of 1978, who felt all these emotions. Lost in a crowd, but surrounded by family, and with his zoology diploma in hand, a familiar face caught Cumming’s eye while leaving the ceremony.

The mace was first introduced by Chancellor Cummings during Winter Commencement.

Pictures courtesy of the Chancellor’s Office.

Bill Friday, the first leader of the UNC system, was in attendance. Cummings sees the man who was pivotal in the expansion of the state’s public university system and who is on N.C.’s list of most “revered public figures,” according to the Daily Tar Heel, and knew he wanted a picture with him.

“So I walk up to this man who is bigger than life and I ask him: ‘Mr. Friday, could I get picture with you and my family,” Cummings said. He expected Friday to dismiss him, but instead was met with an embrace and a humble attitude that made the Chancellor’s undergraduate graduation most memorable.

“That’s the mark of a great person,” Cummings said. “I could take you back to that exact spot – exactly where I saw him and where he took us over for pictures.” As a man who has experienced a few graduation ceremonies, his own, his children’s and now UNCP’s winter and spring commencements as the Chancellor, Cummings encourages graduates of UNCP to decorate their caps for their graduation, but doesn’t recommend tossing their works of art into the air.

UNCP is an institution of tradition and this is especially exemplified during graduation ceremonies. The University’s previous chancellor, Kyle Carter, enacted the symbolic tradition of UNCP first-year students walking across the bridge in front of Mary Livermore Library during freshman orientation, and then, for graduation, walking back across the bridge the other way.

Some students refuse to walk back across before their graduation day.

Chancellor Cummings said he thinks the practice is very meaningful, for eager new students to feverishly enter their college years with the procession of the band and then to walk back across as a mature adults in their caps and gowns. Chancellor Cummings introduced the newfound tradition of the university mace, encompassing the heritage of the community and university, during winter commencement of 2017.

The mace was an instrument of soldiers and knights during the Middle Ages, and in modern times, it has been associated with education. UNCP’s version is a 4-foot honored piece of gold-plated bronze decorated with symbols of the University, as well as the region.

“Every piece on that mace tells a story,” Cummings said. On the mace is a red-tailed hawk, one of UNCP’s most recognizable character, in 24 carat gold, the founders’ names, and depictions of pine cones, tobacco leaves and the Lumber River. During the graduation ceremony, the mace is carried by the first person in the procession of graduates.

Dr. Cherry Beasley carries the mace at the Mace Dedication on Nov. 17.

It can’t be touched with bare hands, both for practical and respectful reasons, so it is brought to graduation by glove-protected hands and rests on its own stand on stage. The university mace will have its spring debut in the May commencement.

The Chancellor’s topic for the graduation speech usually comes to him in the few weeks leading up to the event. But it doesn’t get finalized until “about an hour before,” according to Cummings, so that he can make sure the speech is as special as the day is for students.

Never repeating a commencement speech twice, Cummings works closely with his support team, including his assistant Justin Smith, to pick a topic suitable for each graduating class. The Chancellor will read or hear something that sticks out to him and think – “that’s it; that’s what I want to talk about; that’s the message I want to take to the students.”

May 5 will be a blur of emotions and memories for the undergraduate class of 2018. Much like the fond, memorable experience Chancellor Cummings had with the UNC system legend, Bill Friday, he hopes his speech, or at least one thought from it, may leave one lasting impression on students.

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