North Carolina Central University awarded about 600 bachelor’s, master’s and law degrees on the morning of Dec. 8 during a ceremony in the school’s McDougald–McLendon Gymnasium.
In a spirited commencement address, business executive Cynthia Marshall urged the graduates to “get M.A.D.,” as in “Make a Difference.”
Marshall, 52, has been president of AT&T North Carolina since 2007, overseeing all of the company’s operations in the state and its 7,000 North Carolina employees. In January, she will move to the telecommunications company’s headquarters in Dallas to be senior vice president of human resources.
Marshall’s address drew heavily on her own compelling personal story. She grew up as one of six children amid violence and turmoil in the housing projects of Richmond, Calif. Her father left the family when she was in her teens, predicting before he left that Marshall and her sister would “end up as hookers on the street, drug-addicted and pregnant.” Her response, delivered to her sister, was that she and her sister would instead graduate from college, get themselves and their mother “out of the projects,” and that one day she would be “president of something.”
She earned a scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley, and earned degrees in business administration and human resources management — and was also the university’s first African-American cheerleader. Joining Pacific Bell soon after graduation, she moved steadily up the corporate ladder. Along the way, she and her husband have adopted three children. And she is a cancer survivor — she took a six-month leave from her job last year to undergo chemotherapy for colon cancer that had spread into her lymph nodes.
“So here I am, by the grace of God,” she said. “I am the highest-ranking African-American woman at AT&T. I beat stage-three colon cancer last year. I broke down many barriers. I am ATT — anointed to testify.” She then proceeded to share what she described as “things I’ve learned along the way.”
“Always remember where you came from.”
“Don’t just look back. Give back. We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”
“Do the right thing — never compromise your integrity.”
“Accept adversity. Bad things happen to good people, so don’t give up.”
“And get MAD. Find a cause that makes you mad enough to Make A Difference.”
NCCU Interim Chancellor Charles L. Becton had special praise for a few grads, including the oldest member of the undergraduate class, Patricia Quinichett, 58, who received a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental science. Quinichett first enrolled at NCCU in 1975, but was unable to stay in school after the unexpected death of her grandmother. Becton also recognized one of the youngest graduates, Crystal Cotton, 20, who received a Bachelor of Arts degree in mass communication with high honors. Cotton graduated in 2010 from the Josephine Dobbs Clement Early College High School, which is housed on the NCCU campus. The school, operated by Durham Public Schools, provides motivated students with opportunities to take college-level courses for credit and get a head start on their higher education. Cotton was able to complete her degree requirements in two-and-a-half years.
Rudolph Bailey, who graduated with highest honors with a Bachelor of Science degree in recreation administration, was also praised. A transfer student from Durham Tech, Bailey had a perfect 4.0 grade point average during his two years at NCCU, but his more remarkable achievement was his community service. Undergraduates are required to perform 15 hours of community service per semester. Bailey exceeded his 60-hour requirement many times over, reaching a total of 1,058 hours.