Students celebrate graduation from NCSSM-Morganton on Friday, May 24, by tossing caps into the air. Chrissy Murphy, The News Herald

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The News Herald: NCSSM-Morganton celebrates historic first graduating class

By Chrissy Murphy for The News Herald

Stormy skies cleared up Friday morning just in time for the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics-Morganton’s first graduating class to accept diplomas and turn tassels.

After two years living and learning on the school’s campus, a property it shares with the North Carolina School for the Deaf, nearly 150 students celebrated the end of their high school careers surrounded by family and friends.

NCSSM-Morganton Chief Campus Officer Kevin Baxter said he was immensely proud of each of the students honored Friday.

“Words cannot express how excited I am,” Baxter said. “This is an unbelievable day, an unbelievable event. We have a full barn lawn, and we have nearly 150 students getting ready to walk across that stage. It’s a moment we’ve been working on for years and years and years, and to see it come here and pay off in the way it is, is really remarkable.”

More than 80% of the graduating class are planning to stay in North Carolina to obtain their undergraduate degrees. Others are attending Ivy League universities, Baxter said.

“It’s exactly what we expect from our NCSSM graduates in terms of the talent they have. But while they were here, they were able to basically create this campus from the ground up,” Baxter said. “They created every club and organization, competed in robotics and performed in plays. They did everything you would imagine from a high school population, but this group built it all from the ground up.”

Todd Roberts, chancellor of NCSSM, said about 70% of the graduating class has participated in the school’s athletics teams, netting multiple conference championships. Just last week, the school’s tennis team made it to the first regional finals of any sports team at NCSSM-Morganton.

Students have participated in the first NCSSM-Morganton research symposium, won state research academic competitions, competed at the national level and at the International Science and Engineering Fair. On graduation day, one of the students was in Singapore competing in the Singapore International Mathematics Competition, Roberts said.

The school’s robotics team made it to the world championship this year, and students have formed the school’s first student government.

Rachel Joel, who attended Ardrey Kell High School in Charlotte before coming to NCSSM-Morganton, was the student speaker at Friday’s graduation. She spoke of the memories students have made in their two years on campus, from the growing pains of a campus still under construction to molding the school’s legacy. She will be attending a prestigious, accelerated program at the University of South Carolina. After three years of taking undergraduate courses, as long as she maintains a certain GPA, she will be automatically accepted to the university’s medical school.

“Everything was so new for everyone and we were new,” Joel said. “Some things were working well and some things weren’t. We shared a lot of challenges. Having no school cafeteria, practicing for concerts in storage closets, struggling to do our laundry and vainly paying attention to the construction schedule of the new buildings. I was really excited to see that construction on Joyner had started. Maybe it’ll be finished by the time I graduate — med school, that is.”

She said each of the students there has their own special skills and talents that allowed them to shape the school’s future, from picking the Dragons to be the school’s mascot to excelling in so many fields.

“What does it mean to be a member of the inaugural class of NCSSM-Morganton?” Joel said. “It means we are the game changers, the catalysts. Our actions have impacted and will continue to impact future generations of NCSSM students.”

She recalled the advice a member of the first graduating class at NCSSM-Durham gave to students when they first came to the campus in the fall of 2022: be responsible, be smart and have fun. Joel shared her own advice: push yourself to the fullest, always do what is right and cherish the memories you make along the way.

“I have met so many amazing, driven people and formed long-lasting friendships with people I would’ve never met otherwise,” Joel said. “Thank you all for the experience we shared together as the first class of NCSSM-Morganton and the legacy we left behind for the years to come. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for us all. Go Dragons.”