UNC Asheville Celebrates Class Of 2021 Graduates At Two In-Person May 8 Commencement Ceremonies

Linda Earley Chastang, Esquire addressing UNC Asheville Class of 2021Linda Earley Chastang, Esquire addressing UNC Asheville's Class of 2021
May 8, 2021

The University of North Carolina Asheville Quad was abuzz today when over 500 May graduates were celebrated over two socially distanced Commencement ceremonies. With graduates ranging in age from 19 to 69, this May’s in-person morning and noon Commencement events, which featured mirrored programs for graduates and their two guests, were a welcome affair to celebrate the class of 2021. Both ceremonies were also livestreamed to unca.edu.

Together, UNC Asheville’s Class of 2021 includes graduates from 22 states plus six countries, with 91% hailing from North Carolina. Their majors span the liberal arts and sciences as 19% majored in the Humanities, 33% majored in the Natural Sciences, and 47% majored in the Social Sciences.

UNC Asheville Chancellor Nancy J. Cable presided and presented the Chancellor’s Medallion and the Honorary Doctorate of Laws posthumously to civil rights activist, politician, and statesman,  John R. Lewis. Accepting on his behalf and serving as the Commencement speaker for both ceremonies was Linda Earley Chastang, Esq., CEO for the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation, Inc. Additional honorary degree recipients and speakers included Joy Harjo, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2019–Present, member of the Academy of Arts and Letters 2021; Mel Chin, conceptual visual artist, author, and member of the Academy of Arts and Letters 2021; and N. King Prather, former North Carolina Blue Cross Blue Shield General Counsel, UNC Asheville Board of Trustees Member Emeritus, and parent of three UNC Asheville graduates. For more information on the honorary degree recipients, see our news release announcement.

Commencement Speaker Linda Earley Chastang, Esquire on behalf of John Lewis
John Robert Lewis (February 21, 1940–July 17, 2020) was a revered leader in the civil rights movement whose wisdom, courage and moral clarity earned him the nickname “the conscience of the Congress” during his 17 terms as a representative of Georgia’s fifth congressional district. 

In recognition of his prominent political career, his critical role in the civil rights movement, and his tireless fight for an America where all citizens are treated with dignity and respect, John R. Lewis was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws and the Chancellor’s Medallion, the University’s highest non-academic distinction, given to recognize individuals who demonstrate distinguished national service and leadership. Receiving these recognitions on behalf of Representative Lewis was Linda Earley Chastang, Esquire, Chief Executive Officer of the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation, Inc. “I am humbled by this moment. Here I stand before you, at this esteemed University, attempting to share with you what my friend, my mentor, my boss, my hero would say to the graduating class of 2021,” said Chastang. “This is really surreal, and I feel the energy of his life and example with us today.”

Chastang twice served as Chief of Staff to Congressman John Lewis, assisting him in developing and implementing his legislative and political agendas, analyzing the congressional environment and proposed legislation, and providing advice on strategies to achieve legislative and political priorities. In her commencement address, she pontificated on what a man of Lewis’s “extraordinary accomplishments would have to say to the graduates of the University of North Carolina Asheville today?” Her opening message was steeped in gratitude and “special congratulations for the parents, family, friends, faculty and all who supported the graduates of the class of 2021. Thank you for your sacrifice, and your money, your prayers, tears, kind words of encouragement, and all manner of support that you provided to the graduates which contributed to their success today. Success that was achieved during the COVID-19 pandemic, no less.” She continued, “That is the first thing John Lewis would say on this occasion. Because John Lewis was a very observant and gracious man. He knew about sacrifice. And he always gave credit when and where it was due.”

When John Lewis was elected to Congress, Chastang relocated to Washington and called upon Lewis for a visit. He offered her an administrative assistant position, and although she had multiple law degrees under her belt, she accepted “the job – so long as I could help him change the world.” She hadn’t realized that being the administrative assistant for a Member of Congress was actually the role of Chief of Staff. She remarked, “I just wanted to help John change the world any way I could!” She continued, “I did two stints as his Chief of Staff, 10 glorious years of witnessing first hand the impact of the most honest, hardworking, unassuming, optimistic, focused, energetic and kind human beings imaginable… he truly is one in a billion. That is the man who is being honored here with you today. I hope you feel his presence, power, and energy as you celebrate your graduation.”

“Toward the end of his life, John asked that we establish the John and Lillian Miles Lewis Foundation. I asked what he would like us to do. He said simply, ‘Continue my work, make sure the story gets told, and inspire “good trouble.” You’ll know what to do.’”

Chastang then shared with graduates the lessons learned from over the course of more than 35 years of friendship with Representative John Lewis. “These are important lessons,” she said, “lessons he would want me to share with you today: Have faith. Be confident. Be patient. Be thorough. Do your research. Don’t just ‘show up.’ Have both a passion and a strategy for what you do. Be prepared. Be creative. Be nimble. Pace yourself. Give yourself permission to make mistakes. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Devote yourself as much to the planning as to the doing. Stay focused. Don’t give up – never give up. Do what you know is right and just. And get in some good trouble.”

She closed with a message that Representative Lewis left to be published before his passing last year. “He said, in part: ‘Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.’”

Student Speaker Alyssa Vanerelli
Alyssa Vanerelli, a biology major with a minor in mathematics, was selected as student commencement speaker; she received UNC Asheville’s top academic honor, the Manly E. Wright Award for ranking first in academic accomplishment.

Vanerelli was one of only eight students accepted into the 2019 Harvard University cohort of the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program. The project she completed at Harvard produced findings that were then presented at Harvard, the Leadership Alliance National Symposium in Hartford, Connecticut and the Society for Systematic Biologists Annual Meeting in Gainesville, Florida, a conference of some of the top biologists in the nation including UNC Asheville faculty member and Alyssa’s advisor Dr. Graham Reynolds.

In her remarks, she expressed her gratitude to the mountains of Western North Carolina and for the biodiversity they contain. “This is a special place, Western North Carolina, this city, this University, and we are among the lucky few who get to enjoy these mountains.” She continued, “I am a student of the natural sciences, both biology and math, and so my mind is often occupied by thoughts of nature. In my time here at UNC Asheville studying biology, appreciating nature is exactly what I’ve done.”

Vanerelli also touched upon the shared experience of her graduating class and the effect that the events of the past 14 months have had on her fellow students. “… we have a connection and we have been there for each other. We have learned from each other through shared experience, shared hardship, and shared tragedy. This class has stood up for the rights of others, has said loudly Black Lives Matter, has worked beyond the hill on which this University stands to serve the community of Asheville. We are united in the shared experience of a world upturned, of being cut off from one another in an instant, only to reemerge as faces in a zoom call. Our plans were canceled, our study abroads closed, our families and friends facing the stress of economic upheaval and illness. Together, we are emerging from this storm of challenge and change with a resolve to BE the change, to set the example for the world around us.”

Chancellor Nancy J. Cable Charge to the Graduates
Chancellor Nancy J. Cable addressed UNC Asheville’s Class of 2021 graduates during both ceremonies with a charge instilled with pride and well wishes. Here are her remarks from the afternoon ceremony in their entirety:

“Graduates, you will leave this remarkable University today ready to make your mark on the world on this world – and my oh my does this world need you! You will make your mark as global citizens, as lifelong learners, as educated problem solvers, as change-makers, and most importantly, you will always be UNC Asheville graduates -who know how to make an impact, to foster true resilience, to persevere, and to be kind.

Take your liberal arts and sciences education from this great place […] with you wherever you go, putting your ambition into action, rising to meet any challenge, knowing that your UNC Asheville education will offer you what matters deeply to you and to the world.  Making contributions with your smarts, your heart, and your hard work.

You have charted your own course here at UNC Asheville and you will continue now as a global citizen charting the course into a complicated world.

You will carry the vitality, the energy, the goodwill of this place with you. And the work ethic you gained here. Also, you will carry the notable, and undeniable, UNCA culture of fair play and mutual respect.

You will make your way in this world having learned that achievement matters, but that doing well, by doing right adds value to your heart and your mind.

You will now leave UNC Asheville knowing what it means to have a community. Knowing always that this is a home for you and you are always welcome here. You also know how to create community wherever you land, which makes your life a more positive influence across this globe.

You will make us proud. And the truth is, you already have.”

Additional Awards Conferred
Professor of Environmental Studies Irene Rossell was presented with the Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching. Learn more from this news release.

Professor of English Erica Abrams Locklear received the 2021 Distinguished Teacher of the Year Award.

Elina Morrison, outgoing co-editor In chief of UNC Asheville’s Dignity Journal, received the A.C. Reynolds Award and Thomas D. Reynolds Prize for her outstanding service to the campus community.

Devon Gill received The William and Ida Friday Award for his outstanding service to the community at large.