Averett’s Winter Commencement Honors Nearly 130 Graduates, Features Globally Renowned Diversity and Inclusion Speaker

Posted on December 10th, 2022 by Matt Bell

Connectedness was the central theme throughout the messages for graduates at Averett University’s 2022 Winter Commencement Ceremony today.

Ninety graduates participated in today’s commencement ceremonies, including those whose degrees were conferred today, as well as those who completed their degrees in August but walked in today’s exercises. Together, the August and December graduates totaled 129.

The graduating class of 2022, aged 20 to 59, includes 17 veterans and two international students from the Bahamas. Approximately 30% are first-generation college graduates in their families. The University conferred degrees at both the baccalaureate and master’s levels, with nearly a third of graduates from the traditional program and two-thirds graduating from Averett Online.

Connections to classmates, college professors, university staff members, other Averett alumni, and the basic human connection were all highlighted as means to fulfillment and success.

Averett President Dr. Tiffany M. Franks introduced today’s commencement speaker, global speaker and President and CEO Lenora Billings-Harris. She specializes in helping organizations create and implement strategies to make diversity, equity and inclusion into competitive advantages by disrupting bias in the workplace. With more than 25 years of experience in the public and private sectors, she is known for having developed a unique style of presenting sensitive topics in thought-provoking, non-judgmental, positive and upbeat ways.

“Connections make up the essence of Averett University. When you do well, it spreads out and helps the whole of humanity,” said Franks. “Lenora more than understands the full meaning of connections and connectedness; she embodies it, specifically in regards to diversity and inclusion.”

Currently serving as president and CEO of UbuntuGlobal, a few of her clients include NASA, the Ritz Carlton Hotels, Mercedes Benz, West Point, Disney and Best Buy, as well as numerous professional associations and universities. She serves as an adjunct professor for the business schools of two universities, including Averett.

A two-time author, Billings-Harris is included among the Top 100 Thought Leaders on Diversity by the Society of Human Resource Management and is listed as one of the Top 30 Diversity & Inclusion Leaders You Must Follow in 2022. She is a past president of the Global Speakers Federation and, in 2018, was inducted into its Speaker Hall of Fame.

“We are connected. We are interdependent with one another. Each of us is a piece of a huge jigsaw puzzle called life. I am so grateful that my small puzzle piece is part of the Averett community,” said Billings-Harris.

In addition to building connections, she urged graduates to stay curious, learning about others instead of criticizing what’s not understood.

“Be and stay curious,” she said. “Averett did not teach you what to think; they taught you how to think. Be present with staying curious. Be culturally curious instead of a cultural critic. You’ll be willing to learn more about people like you.”

“Disrupt that biased thinking,” she continued. “Curiosity expands our choices, and that enables you to make better decisions…When you decide to be culturally curious, you’ll connect to people and know more of their own story, and you’ll see how that may influence you moving forward.”

Finally, Billings-Harris impressed upon them the importance of staying present with others in moments to achieve these connections, despite the crowded and noisy nature of today’s culture.

“Be fully present…Diversity is not about metrics, though we know metrics are important. Inclusion is not only about the words you use, even though we know words are very powerful. Diversity and inclusion is about showing up, being fully present – authentically who you are – and creating space for others to be authentically who they are.”

For her distinguished career and life’s work in spreading the word of humanism across the globe to better governments, businesses and educational institutions, Averett presented Billings-Harris with a Doctorate of Humane Letters – the highest honor a university can confer on an individual.

Special to today’s ceremony was a recognition of the late Robert Marsh who taught art at Averett for 54 years before passing away this October. The very first chair in the front row in the faculty seating section behind graduates – the seat that represents the most senior professor of the faculty – was cloaked in his academic regalia.

“For many, many years that seat has been occupied by Professor Robert Marsh…He was a wonderful man, gifted and celebrated artist, a consummate teacher and an endless mentor. Miss him and we honor him today,” said Franks.

The ceremony included the traditional bagpipe processional, an invocation from Professor of Mathematics Rev. Dr. Gary Tucker ’85, and a performance of the national anthem by the Averett Singers. Dr. Annie Wimbish ’81, chair of the Averett Board of Trustees, welcomed graduates and guests on behalf of the board, and Dr. Tucker sang the Alma Mater. Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs Virginia Henderson presented the graduates and recognized those receiving awards, including:

Traditional Undergraduate Awards (Highest GPA):

Mary C. Fugate Award: Maggie May Turner
Grace V. Crenshaw Award: Margaret Suyesha Calio

Averett Online Awards (Highest GPA):

Malcolm Knowles Award: Austin Ryan Foushee
Frank Campbell Award: Holly Chase Goodall

View the full recorded ceremony here, and find more photos from the day here.