With the toss of their caps, NCSSM-Morganton's first-ever graduates became NCSSM alumni. (photo credit: Bryan Gilmer)

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NCSSM-Morganton graduates historic first class

Friday, May 24, nearly 150 high school seniors from throughout North Carolina turned their tassels under a warming mid-morning sun, becoming the first-ever graduating class of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics–Morganton. 

The ceremony was more than a victory lap for the graduates and their families – it was a celebration of a new UNC System campus. Initially funded through a bond approved by North Carolina’s voters in 2016, NCSSM-Morganton was, in action and in deed, the result of a dedicated and tireless coalition of advocates from Morganton, the larger Unifour region of Catawba, Burke, Caldwell and Alexander counties, and the entire state of North Carolina. These champions of the school – elected representatives, regional businesses, civic organizations and private citizens – all worked together to provide the support and enthusiastic welcome necessary to cement NCSSM’s place in the community.

The South Mountains partnered with NCSSM-Morganton’s iconic barn to create an unforgettable setting for graduation. (photo credit: Margo Metzger)

Dr. Todd Roberts, NCSSM’s chancellor, welcomed the commencement ceremony attendees and congratulated graduates on their historic accomplishment. His words, as he spoke, reverberated off the Residence Hall and Academic Commons buildings where the students had spent so many hundreds of hours.

“I imagine that for many of you, one of the reasons you wanted to attend NCSSM-Morganton was because of the opportunity it presented to be pioneers, to do something that no one at this campus had done or will ever do, again: be first,” Roberts said. “Your opportunity, for certain, has been unique and will never be repeated in this place. Being the first comes with both freedom and challenges of having a blank canvas. In all that you’ve done, each of you and all of you together has turned that blank canvas into beautiful art.

“NCSSM’s motto is ‘Maius Opus Moveo,’ which means ‘Accept the greater challenge,’” Roberts continued. “This motto is true for all students who choose to enroll at NCSSM, but I think this motto is even more true for all of you graduates here today. I hope sitting here you have an incredible sense of satisfaction and great joy with all you’ve accomplished. You certainly should. With hard work, flexibility and patience, you created a community where there was none before you.”

As was the case more than 40 years ago with NCSSM’s original class of graduates in Durham, NCSSM-Morganton’s first graduates established a school culture amidst unfinished buildings and ongoing construction on parts of the campus. Rachel Joel, a senior from Charlotte who delivered the student address, did not miss the opportunity to poke fun at the challenges of life on a brand new campus that was still rising around them.

“I was so excited to see that construction on Joiner [Hall, a future class and meeting space] had started,” she said of the final historic building on campus being renovated, which has stood unused during her time on campus. “Maybe construction will finish by the time I graduate. By the time I graduate med school, that is.”

Levity aside, Rachel reflected on the class’s role as pioneers of NCSSM history: “We were the ones who chose our school’s mascot to be the Dragons and created traditions unique to our school. We started so many firsts here – NCSSM-Morganton’s first Research Symposium, first school dance, first club meeting, first athletic victory, first Prom, first Yearbook, and much more.

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

Keynote speaker, Peter Hans, spent part of his youth growing up in Western North Carolina. (photo credit: Bryan Gilmer)

Peter Hans, president of the University of North Carolina System, delivered the keynote address. He echoed Rachel’s sentiment and spoke to the students of the history of NCSSM as a whole, emphasizing the fact that NCSSM’s creation was born not from a grand idea for a shiny, new object, but from the frustrations of its earliest proponents with issues such as access to opportunity and diversity of values that, not thoughtfully and compassionately addressed, can divide rather than unite.

“That’s part of the reason you all hail from every part of North Carolina, why this school wanted to bring you all together under one roof to live and learn alongside each other,” Hans said. “You are all leaving here as experienced institution builders, having pioneered this new campus and helped establish its culture and rituals for all those who will come after you. You had the bravery and curiosity to take a chance on a new place, with people you didn’t know, and you’ve helped shape it into something wonderful. Knitting together a North Carolina that holds so much diversity of life and culture will be one of the crucial tasks of your time, and you’ll be much better at it because of the years you spent here in Morganton.”

NCSSM-Morganton’s graduates came from every region of North Carolina. (photo credit: Bryan Gilmer)

With the speeches complete, students one by one strode across the graduation stage to receive their diplomas with handshakes and smiles. And when, at last, the final graduate returned to their seat with the distant South Mountains looking on, the entire Class of 2024 flung their mortarboards into the sky, a final show of unity before embarking on the many and diverse paths they’ll follow.

Chancellor Roberts took to the microphone as the cheers settled for a few closing words to the class, words particularly befitting a class whose mascot is the Dragons.

“I thought a fitting way to close today would be with a quote from my favorite tale of dragons, ‘How to Train Your Dragon.’ This quote, I think, speaks to what you’ve done and will do. I quote, ‘Legend says that when the ground quakes or lava spews from the earth, it is the dragons, letting us know they’re still here, waiting for us to figure out how to get along. Yes, the world believes that dragons are gone, if they ever existed at all. But we … we know otherwise. And we’ll guard this secret until the time comes when dragons can return in peace.’”

“Well, here you are today. Clearly dragons do exist.”

Click here to watch and listen as a number of graduating seniors reflect on their experience at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics–Morganton.

Watch a recording of the ceremony. View more photos of Commencement.