McMahon ’69 speaks at spring commencement

Fireworks flew and tassels turned May 4 in Dowdy- Ficklen Stadium as 5,479 students graduated from East Carolina University.

At ECU’s 109th spring commencement ceremony, fireworks capped off a new format as the event was held in the evening for the first time. Also new this year was Grad Bash 2K18, a May 3 festival-style celebration for graduates, their families and the community in Greenville’s Uptown District with an estimated 2,500 attendees.

Fireworks capped off the 2018 ECU spring commencement ceremony, held in the evening for the first time.

At the evening ceremony, Chancellor Cecil Staton congratulated graduates and encouraged them to make a difference. “We are counting on you to show us the way to a productive and meaningful future for our communities, our nation and even the world,” he said.

Introducing keynote speaker Linda McMahon ’69, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, Staton said, “Today we are honored to have with us one of our own ECU Pirates, an eastern North Carolina success story, a public figure working and advocating on behalf of the 30 million small businesses in the United States.”

McMahon, a native of New Bern, earned her bachelor’s degree in French and her teaching certification at ECU. Together with her husband, Vince ’69, she went on to become the co-founder and chief executive officer of World Wrestling Entertainment.

In recognition of her leadership, accomplishments and service, Staton awarded McMahon an honorary doctorate of humanities degree, as approved by the ECU board of trustees.

McMahon was a newlywed when she arrived as a freshman. She said she’s taken a lot of risks and had some failures amid success.

“Challenge the status quo. At work, treat every day as if it’s your first day on the job,” McMahon said. “Your success will come from doing something better, smarter and more innovative than what’s been done before.”

She encouraged graduates to “find your passion, play to your strengths and never lose your curiosity. I think these apply to business or any path you take. While you can’t script your life, your values will drive your narrative.”

For the graduates, the ceremony brought a range of emotions, from joy and pride to nostalgia and anxiety.

“It’s really bittersweet for me,” said Toni Abernathy as she led the biology graduates into Wright Auditorium for their departmental ceremony. “It feels like just yesterday that I was in Garrett as a freshman — it’s hard to believe it has really been four years.”

Abernathy, an environmental educator, will work at a science center in her hometown of Hickory before starting work on a master’s degree next spring.

Graduates Danielle Torrone and Taylor Maleska said they liked the ceremony’s later start because it gave family the opportunity to travel without taking off an entire day’s work, a chance to sleep in and time to get ready for the event. And the pyrotechnics.

“The fireworks were definitely cool,” Torrone said.