Life Lessons

Ko Barrett '94 gives the Commencement address

Honorary degree recipient, UNC Asheville alumna, and May 2017 Commencement speaker Ko Barrett’s journey might resonate with many of us.

She began her college career as a student-athlete at the University of Alabama, and after taking time away from school to raise a family, she completed her education at UNC Asheville, earning a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Studies and graduating with distinction as a University Scholar and a Distinguished Research Scholar.

Now, she’s a leader in her field, serving as the deputy assistant administrator for research at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), supervising NOAA’s research enterprise and the execution of NOAA programs including the Climate Program Office, the Office of Weather and Air Quality research, and others.

Graduation cap with legos that read "UNCA 2017"But, as Barrett shared with graduates and the thousands in the audience at Commencement, that’s only part of the story. A lot of twists and turns took place along the way—as she put it, “Life will happen.”

First, she followed her passion for environmental stewardship all the way to Nevada for an independent study during college. The land her community lived on had been financed, in part, by The Grateful Dead, which drew many fans to the area.

Little did she know that their unique musical style of “morphing from one song into another” would become a mirror for her own life.

After her first marriage ended, Barrett found herself with two small children and no job, degree or place to live. She ended up working as a handyman at a summer camp in Burnsville, N.C. and lived in a cabin with only a refrigerator, hotplate and toaster oven.

Despite it being an extremely stressful time, Barrett tried to carry out her plan to be the perfect mom, preparing all organic meals that took hours—that is, until someone close to her imparted these wise words: “Nobody ever died from eating fish sticks.”

She made it through (with the occasional help of fish sticks for dinner) and when her kids got older, she went back to school, balancing work, studies and parenting. A few more arcs in her story took place during this time—including remarrying and playing college basketball in Egypt while pregnant with her daughter.

After 18 years, she completed her bachelor’s degree at UNC Asheville at age 35 and received an honorary Doctor of Science degree at Commencement on May 13, 2017. Grads pat the Rocky statue for luck as they leave the Commencement ceremony

Barrett shared these stories because, like a familiar chorus, life’s tests will always come back around. What matters is that we learn from them.

She left UNC Asheville’s newest alumni with this charge: “… Life won’t always be easy. This university has done a great job of giving you a broad library of knowledge. It is the solid foundation upon which your particular brand of success will be built. But I want to encourage you to value the lessons life delivers to you as well. And you will come to know and honor your own personal brand of grit. We are Bulldogs, after all.”

Listen to the full May 2017 Commencement Address.

May 2017 Honorary Degree Recipients

Commencement speaker Ko Barrett was joined on stage by three leaders in their fields:

Dr. Olson Huff, who also received a Doctor of Science degree, has practiced pediatrics in Asheville since 1987. Under his leadership, Mission Children’s Hospital, the only children’s hospital in Western North Carolina, was formed. The Olson Huff Center for Child Development became a part of the Children’s Hospital in 1996. Having been appointed by the governor, Huff serves on the N.C. Early Childhood Advisory Council.

Stoney Lamar, Dr. Olson Huff, Chancellor Mary K. Grant, Pat Smith, Ellen Wachacha Bird, Ko BarrettStoney Lamar, a woodturner and sculptor who lives and works in Saluda, N.C., has exhibited his works in the American Craft Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England, and the Renwick Gallery of the Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. He was a founding member of the American Association of Woodturners, and board president of the Center for Craft, Creativity & Design. He received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.

Ellen Wachacha Bird, an elder of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, was recently given the title of Beloved Woman, a designation bestowed upon Cherokee women who are highly respected for their service to the community, their integrity and their good character. A fluent Cherokee speaker, she has shared her knowledge of Cherokee traditions, including medicines, quilting and food, not only with her 10 children, but also with the community. She received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

Read more about the May 2017 honorary degree recipients.