Dr. Bruce Kirchoff, Biology, had a simple message for UNCG’s 1,642 winter graduates: Don’t underestimate the power of ‘Yes’.

“When life is difficult, the only rational, the only possible answer is ‘Yes,'” Kirchoff told them. He smiled and threw his hands in the air throughout the speech, happy to acknowledge the screams and cheers of graduates’ families and friends.

Kirchoff, who received the UNC Board of Governors’ Teaching Excellence Award in May, gave the winter commencement address Thursday in the Greensboro Coliseum. His speech focused on obstacles and hardships — and graduates who persevered.

commencement2-27112Many in the graduating class are first-generation college students, Kirchoff said. About 40 percent relied on PELL Grants to pay for their education. And 73 percent took on debt — an average $25,000 — to attend UNCG.

“I know that each of you has a story to tell about the adversity you have overcome in order to be here today. I wish we had time for you to tell your stories. In lieu of that, let me tell you a few of them that I know,” Kirchoff said. “The stories are short, and important. They are stories of how you have succeeded in the face of adversity. They are examples of how you have said ‘Yes.’ The stories are real. The names are not.”

He spoke of “Alexander,” who worked two jobs totaling almost 40 hours a week, but got all A’s or B’s in his classes.

“Not only is he a hard worker, he also one of the most pleasant students I have had the pleasure to work with during my years at UNCG,” Kirchoff said.

Then there is “Reem,” who worked as an EMT on the night-to-dawn shift through the six-plus years of her undergraduate and graduate study at UNCG.

“Reem would come to my 9:30 a.m. class after about an hour of sleep, with her cup of coffee in hand and would stay awake, and even participate,” Kirchoff said. “She was always present. She was always attentive. Every day Reem proved her ‘Yes'”.

“Alea” was homeless before she enrolled at UNCG. In addition to the typical struggles for new college students, she had to get off the streets, find a reliable food source, and establish the security she needed to finish her education.

“During her studies she lost her food stamps and struggled with food insecurity. At times she could not afford her textbooks. During her studies her grandmother passed away, a loss that I know many of you have shared,” Kirchoff said. “Throughout everything she carried a full-time, strenuous course load, worked full time, and also held a leadership position on campus.”

And lastly there is “Daniel,” whose family immigrated to the U.S. when he was in high school. With hard work and family support, Daniel graduated high school, enrolled in a community college, and finally transferred to UNCG. He was the first in his family to attend college. Things were going well for Daniel, who plans to be a dentist.

“Then, that first October, his father was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer, and given six months to live,” Kirchoff said. “Devastated, Daniel wanted to give up. The first thing that came to his mind was to drop all of his classes and help his family, but his father would not let him abandon his dream. Up to that time Daniel had been working every weekend, but now he had to find full-time employment. Two years have passed since his father was diagnosed and he is still here fighting every day, and so is Daniel.”

Dr. Elizabeth Ann Doebler also urged graduates to acknowledge the love and support of families like Daniel’s. Doebler, who earned a DMA in music performance, spoke for the Class of 2014.

“And most importantly, remember to thank your family — your parents, siblings, grandparents and, for some, your spouse and children,” she said. “They are the ones who supported you no matter how late you called or how cranky you were. They are the ones who cheered you on when you wanted to quit. They are the ones who are so proud to see you reach your goal, and they are the ones who will continue to be there as you move into the next chapter of your life. ”

The university awarded 1,232 undergraduate degrees, 331 master’s degrees, 8 Specialist in Education degrees and 71 doctoral degrees during the ceremony. Of that total, 52 degrees went to international students.

Four of the first UNCG Spartans of Promise — Kevin Wu, Jessica Straehle, Dustin Gamradt and Melvin L. Clark Jr. — were among the graduates. The new Spartans of Promise award recognizes graduating seniors for excellence in both academics and service; it is given each year to no more than ten graduating seniors.

Also graduating were 11 merit scholars, five Phi Beta Kappas and four UNCG Guarantee Scholars. UNCG Guarantee enables deserving students with limited finances to graduate debt-free.

David Banks was chief marshal. Robert Todd was tassel turner.

Dr. L. DiAnne Borders, Counseling and Educational Development, was faculty marshal and mace bearer.

Dr. Sue Medley, Class of 1965, and Melvin Clark, Class of 2014, rang the university bell, a UNCG tradition. Clark is also a Spartan of Promise honoree.

Story by Michelle Hines, University Relations

Photos by Carlos Morales