Fear can be a good thing — if you manage it right. Dom Amendum urged UNCG’s Class of 2014 to embrace their fear, and overcome it, as he addressed new graduates during the university’s spring commencement Friday in the Greensboro Coliseum.
He was, Amendum told the audience, “not nervous, not jittery, but full of fear” when Chancellor Linda P. Brady asked him to speak at commencement. A 2001 graduate of UNCG’s School of Music (now the School of Music, Theatre and Dance), he has accomplished great things on Broadway, directing music for “First Date” and the smash-hit Oz musical “Wicked.” His ultra-competitive career path has required great courage, but he felt a bit like the Cowardly Lion when his alma mater invited him to speak.
“I said all of the things one says when given an opportunity like this: ‘I’d be honored.’ ‘Thank you so much.’ ‘Will there be free parking?’ And then I hung up the phone and broke into a full-body sweat.” Amendum described it as a “full-blown panic attack.”
“The truth is none of us are strangers to fear. Coming here, I was afraid; afraid I wouldn’t be good enough, funny enough, inspiring enough. And graduates, when I sat where you sit today, I was afraid then. As you walk out the doors of this coliseum today you’re taking a big step. And what follows — work, money, family — these things can inspire fear in all of us. And now you’re all sitting here having a legitimate fear: The fear that I will ruin your graduation day by giving the most pessimistic commencement address ever. ”
But Amendum’s speech was far from pessimistic, extolling the beauty of fear overcome. He recounted the story, in third-person, of how a dark-haired girl with deep brown eyes he met in the nacho line at an amusement park once coaxed him to try the roller coaster. It was called The Guillotine.
“He didn’t fall out. He didn’t lose a shoe. The girl held his hand and they laughed and screamed together. Thrill and accomplishment filled his heart.”
Overcoming fear can lead to calm and focus, Amendum said. It can spur action and fuel creativity. He told of how the 9/11 attacks happened just days after he moved to New York City. Of how he started out roughing it, bunking with friends and working on small shows. Of how he got his big break with “Wicked.” Of how he steeled himself to move on to new projects, musical versions of “Secondhand Lions” and “Heathers.”
“With the help of family, friends — and, in my case, that dark-haired girl in the nacho line — you can find balance and overcome your doubts. So today, as you leave UNCG and embark on the next step of your journey, I leave you with this: Do what you love and keep fear in its place. Surround yourself with those who encourage you. Enjoy the calm, flat pieces of the track. And when you do take those big drops and turns, throw your arms up in the air, laugh, and hold tight to the hands of the people who love you.”
Chancellor Brady conferred 2,561 degrees at commencement, including 1,938 bachelor’s degrees, 555 master’s degrees, nine Specialist in Education degrees, and 59 doctoral degrees. Of this total, 54 degrees went to international students.
The ceremony marked some major firsts for the university.
Rabeah Rawashdeh and Joseph Estevez, the first graduates of the nanoscience PhD program in the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering (JSNN), received their degrees. JSNN, which opened in 2010, represents a partnership between UNCG, NC A&T and industries throughout the state. PhDs in nanoscience are awarded by UNCG.
Also graduating were the first UNCG Guarantee scholars. UNCG Guarantee, which enables talented students at or below the poverty level to graduate debt-free, began in fall 2010 funded by an anonymous $6 million gift to the university. That semester, UNCG admitted 35 Guarantee scholars.
Nine graduates of UNCG’s Beyond Academics program also marched at the ceremony – another first for the university. Beyond Academics is a four-year certificate program for young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Dr. Daniel Winkler was mace bearer. This was his last ceremony after five years of carrying the mace.
Chief marshal was David Banks. Assistant chief marshal was Lauren West, and Caleb Hoover was assisting marshal.
Tassel turner was Sacia Listenbee.
Lindsay Ives, Class of 2014, and Anne Prince Cuddy, Class of 1964, rang the university bell, a long-standing UNCG tradition.
Dr. Bruce Kirchoff, a professor of biology at UNCG, received the UNC Board of Governors Teaching Excellence Award, which the board gives annually to one faculty member at each UNC-system campus.
Benoit Sabourin spoke for the Class of 2014. Benoit encouraged his classmates to continue the traditions of service, personal success, continued growth and excellence they learned at UNCG.
“Hopefully, you will go, proudly showing your Spartan spirit and continuing to be ever growing,” he told them. “Because at UNCG, we do not remain stagnant, and we do not stay idle. We grow. We grow and develop ourselves, each other, this university, and our community through the legacy we’ve established. So take something you care about; take that legacy, and if you remember the lessons you were taught here at UNCG, I promise you, you will make that legacy bigger.”
Benoit and SGA President Crystal Bayne shook things up as they ran into the audience for an “Ellen DeGeneres, Oscar-style selfie.” The photo found its way to UNCG’s Facebook page.