By Sarah Plummer
Speakers celebrated the diversity represented in the Class of 2012 as Mountain State University conferred academic degrees for more than 600 students Saturday at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center.
Among those who graduated were international students, students with disabilities, and Appalachian students, all of whom overcame adversity in pursuit of their degree.
Interim president Dr. Richard Sours asked those graduating students who were the first in their family to graduate from college to stand, and nearly three-fourths of the graduates stood to thundering applause.
“The mission of Mountain State University is to transform lives through the power of knowledge,” Sours said. “You are examples of this mission at work. With this degree you have been awarded today, your lives have been transformed. I encourage you to keep that mission with you as you carry on.”
Valedictorian Cheryle Scott Sanders, a 56-year-old from Oak Hill, said she grew up in a hollow in Mingo County, one of two women in a large and male-dominated extended family.
“I learned at a very early age that women were not encouraged to pursue higher education unless it was in a service field,” she said. “But age, race, gender, religion and disabilities are not the obstacles they once were.”
Sanders is multiply disabled and legally blind.
She confronted additional adversity in being an older student with little knowledge of computers, yet she graduated Saturday with a 4.0 GPA and a degree in social work.
“I’m proud to be an Appalachian woman. One thing we Appalachians don’t do is run from adversity,” she declared.
“I had a very difficult choice to make. Do I remain disabled, or do I reinvent myself and become an active member of society again, and become handi-capable?”
Sanders said her classmates and professors were among her most ardent supporters. “I feel doubly honored and privileged to have been chosen to represent such an amazing group of students,” Sanders said.
“With them, I found the courage to take one day at a time, which led me to go further than I ever dreamed possible,” Sanders explained. “I was treated as an equal and not as a student with multiple disabilities. The professors were constantly educating students on disabilities and the secret to inclusion versus toleration.”
She added that, like knowledge, diversity should be transformative.
“Let us be agents of change. We can be the architects, engineers, social workers, poets, writers and visionaries of a better tomorrow.”
Mary Riner, Alumni Association president, said she came from a small coal mining town and overcame adversity with the help of what was then Beckley College in 1963.
“I grew up in a coal mining town that was not too far away from here, but it was far enough away that my dreams seemed impossible to achieve,” she shared.
Riner encouraged the students to “go out and do something great with your future.”
Andrew Wheeler, chair of the faculty senate, reminded the graduates “Success is measured by how much a person gives to their community.”
Invocation and benediction were given by the Rev. Wanda Childs of Saint Luke Lutheran Church.
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