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News Items from UNC Greensboro

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“We are a force to be reckoned with,” says Nicole Rowe ’22. “That’s something we’ve shown over the course of the pandemic. And I think that’s a trait that is going to be very beneficial in life because you never know what’s going to be thrown at you.”

A half-dozen seniors gathered to take some portraits, share their future plans, and give us their thoughts on graduating. Read more in UNCG Magazine.

This week, UNC Greensboro’s 2022 May Commencement and Doctoral Hooding Ceremony welcomed 2,838 new graduates into the Spartan alumni family at the Greensboro Coliseum and UNCG Auditorium.

2,137 bachelor’s degrees, 598 master’s degrees, and 103 doctoral degrees were conferred, including 78 to international students.

Their path was not easy; their academic journeys were in the midst of a global pandemic with challenges in all parts of life, but these Spartans persevered with courage and dedication to their chosen paths and future professions.

“As I am looking at you, see not just you, but all of your hard work,” said Faculty Senate Chair Sarah Daynes who gave welcoming remarks. “All the papers, exams, theses and dissertations, internships, hours in the lab… Graduates, I also see your support networks – your loved ones, your families, your friends, your neighbors. Do not forget to thank them and to tell them how important they are to you, every chance you get. I look at you today and I see something else. A global pandemic that changed your lives and our campus. But that did not stop you. Class of 2022, what an achievement. Your faculty are so proud of you.”

“If you can graduate during a once-in-a-century pandemic, you can do anything,” offered Chancellor Franklin D. Gilliam, Jr. in his opening remarks. He praised the new Spartans’ perseverance and noted particularly the first-generation graduates who completed their degrees only online, and the students who have been the first in their families to go to college. “This is how we transform lives… It’s not just about you today but about the legacy you’re starting for your family.”

Broadway legend Beth Leavel ’80 MFA delivered the keynote address to the graduates at Friday’s ceremony and was awarded an honorary degree. Leavel has performed in 13 shows on Broadway, and currently, she is preparing for the lead role in Elton John’s musical adaptation of “The Devil Wears Prada,” which will open in Chicago before heading to Broadway.

Leavel reflected on her time at UNCG earning an MFA in acting and directing, getting to know faculty and students she admired in an environment she cherished, one in which she “loved to go to class.” 

Her advice for Spartans?

  1. Be prepared. 
  2. Be on time. 
  3. Be kind

“I’m very proud of you, Class of 2022,” Leavel told them. “You’re going to be okay – you’re actually going to be fabulous. Go and change this world!  We need your gifts, your talents, your hearts –  we need your singularity.”

At the end of her speech, Leavel called her favorite UNCG professor, Dr. Joy, on speakerphone, so that the Class of 2022 could greet him.

“Teachers, you have no idea how you can change lives,” she concluded amid cheers from all corners of the arena.

Dennis W. Quaintance and Nancy King Quaintance of Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants & Hotels also received honorary degrees for their innovation, hard work, and service within the local hospitality industry.

Students who spoke included Student Government Association President Hazael Mengesha and Speaker for the May Class Peyton Upchurch, who offered the following reflection:

“I commend everyone in this room for getting to where you are today – whether you are a graduate or you’ve been part of a graduate’s support system, we have been through a great deal in the last several years. The sense of connection and belonging that the UNCG community has provided, however, has not wavered. Every single person in the room this morning has had a hand in making that happen. The value that we all place on solidarity – on getting through hardships together, has only gotten stronger, and that is absolutely something to celebrate.

My hope for each of us is that we walk away from our time at UNCG knowing that the community that exists here does not go away with the completion of a degree. The people, the moments, and the lessons learned that define our time here stick around to remind us of what we’ve achieved with the support of one another.

 So, wherever you’re headed after today – whether it’s graduate school, a new career, or if you’re like me, and you’re not sure yet, remember: you have an entire community cheering you on.”

Congratulations to our graduating Spartans! Check out highlights from the ceremonies below, and stay tuned for a recording of the livestream at commencement.uncg.edu.

Story by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications

Videography by Grant Evan Gilliard, University Communications

Irene Richardson in her nursing white coat and graduation cap

Irene Richardson was in South Florida to attend a pathology research symposium when she woke up in her hotel room and discovered she couldn’t move her arms or legs.

She used the voice recognition function on her cell phone to call for help.

Doctors initially believed stress and fatigue had brought on the numbness in Richardson’s limbs. Their opinions changed two months later when she lost vision in her right eye and couldn’t walk around the grocery store without getting tired.

After undergoing tests, Richardson was diagnosed in 2015 with neuromyelitis optica (NMO), a rare condition in which a person’s immune system attacks a substance in the body that serves as insulation around the nerves. The condition is similar to multiple sclerosis.

No one else in Richardson’s family has been diagnosed with NMO, which affects approximately 1-10 people per 100,000.

“When I was diagnosed, the only people that could truly understand what I was going through were my nurses at the time, the ones that would hold my hand, cry with me, and help me do all the things that I couldn’t do for myself,” Richardson said. “They would treat me with dignity. They would give me encouragement to keep going, keep trying, keep fighting.”

They also inspired Richardson, who was married with two teenage daughters, to enroll at UNC Greensboro at age 36 and pursue a career in nursing. 

To do so, she’d have to juggle nursing school, a full-time job, and her family life – all while getting chemotherapy treatments every five months to keep her NMO symptoms manageable.

Four years later, Richardson, 40, is earning her bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) degree from the School of Nursing. Even more, she’s graduating as president of the School of Nursing’s Class of 2022.

“It is hard to find the right words to describe. It is like I wished on a shooting star, and now I’m holding it in my hands,” Richardson said. “I am exhausted and jubilant all at once. Get ready. This will be the first of many accomplishments for me and my class.” 

Richardson became interested in health care after starting what was supposed to be a temporary job at Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital.

Richardson went from filing paperwork and microscope slides to helping with pathology research. She acquired tumor samples and found patients to participate in research studies, but she said she felt limited in her job because she only had an associate’s degree in general studies.

“I thought this is just not enough. There’s still so much else I could do. I was 36 years old at the time with a two-year degree,” Richardson said. “And I thought ‘You know that nursing degree, it could be mine. I just need two more years to finish.’ And I decided just to go for it. 

“I’d rather shoot for it and say, ‘Hey, at least I gave it a shot, at least I tried’ than to be four years later in the same position, wondering the same thing.” 

Richardson started taking classes at UNCG in Fall 2018. A year later, Tammy Hall, a clinical instructor in the School of Nursing, was introduced to Richardson after hearing about her story.

They immediately hit it off. Hall encouraged Richardson to apply to the BSN program, and Richardson often stopped by Hall’s office to talk.

“She had such a positive outlook, even after the physical obstacles she had endured. I knew she was just what we were looking for in a Spartan Nurse,” Hall said. “She has been a ray of hope and optimism for the senior class. Her presence will be missed in the School of Nursing.”

In Spring 2019, Richardson arrived at the Margaret C. Moore Building – the former home of the School of Nursing – in a power wheelchair that she sometimes used to help her get around because of her condition.

Richardson admitted she felt self-conscious about meeting with Britt Flanagan, an academic advisor in the School of Nursing, to discuss applying to the BSN program while she was in a wheelchair. She stood up out of her wheelchair and walked into Flanagan’s office.

“Honestly, I did not know what to think. Irene had many obstacles to overcome, emotionally and physically,” Flanagan said. “She was very forthcoming, and I was impressed by her strength and openness to share her story.

“In September 2021, I was not at all surprised that Irene was running for president for the Class of 2022, and she has led this class to the end through a very difficult time with COVID-19.” 

Since her NMO treatments are expensive, Richardson has had to continue working at Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital to maintain her health insurance while taking classes in the School of Nursing.

She works night shifts at the hospital on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Her 12-hour shift that begins on Sunday ends at 7 a.m. Monday, which has given her just enough time to rush home and shower before her 8 a.m. nursing classes.

Richardson often took naps in between classes to give her body a rest. It was then back to her “daywalker schedule,” as she called it.

“You might see me slumped over in the student lounge with my headphones on and my sleep mask on,” Richardson said, laughing. “So I do get a nice break.”

On days she didn’t work, Richardson would wake up between 4:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. because she needed extra time to get ready for class. The heat from a hot shower could cause her to become fatigued.

Richardson already has her first nursing job lined up for after graduation. She’ll soon start working in the emergency department at Duke Raleigh Hospital.

“It’s the passion and perseverance of people like Irene that make nursing a great profession,” said Dr. Debra Barksdale, dean of the School of Nursing.

Richardson isn’t the only member of her family celebrating a milestone.

In June, her older daughter, Dorian, 18, is graduating from Weaver Academy in Greensboro and will attend UNC Chapel Hill. Meanwhile, her younger daughter, Camryn, 16, is preparing to join the UNC School of the Arts as a high school senior in the fall.

After years of struggling with NMO, unsure of what her new normal would look like, Richardson now can’t stop smiling.

“I’ll have my condition for the rest of my life, and I will be striving every day for the rest of my life to live meaningfully and to learn as much as possible and do compassionate work,” Richardson said.

Irene Richardson in her cap and gown inside the Nursing Instructional Building

Graduate smiling in a crowd on the floor of the Coliseum

#UNCGGrad, celebrate with us!

Graduates are invited to share their accomplishments on social media by using related “digital swag,” tagging posts #UNCGGrad, and using Commencement-themed Instagram AR and Snapchat filters at the Greensboro Coliseum. The University will display #UNCGGrad-tagged Instagram and Twitter posts live before the ceremony. Graduates are also encouraged to use the Commencement 2022 persona in the UNCG Mobile App.

Story by Alex Abrams, School of Nursing
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications

UNCG production of SpongeBob: The Musical
“The SpongeBob Musical”

When the curtain rose on opening night for “Sweat,” it was the first time in two years that actors at UNC Greensboro did not have to wear masks onstage.

Actors in "SWEAT" promotional still
“Sweat” was UNCG’s first stage play with unmasked actors since Spring 2020

“It brought tears to my eyes being in the theatre. It was like, ‘Wow, we made it!'” says MFA Directing Program Coordinator John Gulley.

And more students got to perform face covering-free in “The SpongeBob Musical,” the School of Theatre‘s most recent and largest production since 2020, which sold more than 2,300 tickets.

For “SpongeBob” Director and Musical Theatre Professor Erin Speer, it was a blessing to see the actors’ entire faces. “There’s so much under a mask, so much detail. The first day I got to see it without their masks on, I was like, ‘Oh, that was happening under there.’ It was delightful.”

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, only ten people were allowed in the audience. 

“This whole past year, we’ve had seat covers, closing out seats,” says Chip Haas, the technical director. “It’s been really nice to start pulling those back again.”

The show must go on…safely

Peter and the Starcatcher promotional still
“Peter and the Starcatcher”

Haas has worked on theatrical productions for thirty years. Nothing could prepare him for performing through a pandemic. He turned to workshops and message boards where professionals were asking the same questions he had.

“I’ve read more medical materials, more medical journals, trying to figure out masks and air filters and stuff like that – stuff I never thought I’d ever need to know about.”

Even as classes across the nation moved online, faculty in the School of Theatre knew stage performances had to continue in some way.

“We were determined that the show must go on,” says Gulley, “But the show must go on safely.”

The costuming department designed special masks for singers. They did their best to incorporate them into the costumes and wrestled with how to attach a microphone around them.

“They sit off of the actors’ faces so that their mouths are free to move, and that sound doesn’t feel muffled,” says Speer. “They’re huge. They look like duck bills coming off of their faces.”

Roll the cameras

“One Week at Woolworths”

It was a learning opportunity for students, Speer says, to perform without the energy drawn from a large audience. Only a small number of students, faculty, and staff were allowed to watch inside Taylor Theatre, which seats more than 400. Family and friends livestreamed recordings of the performances.

“Something that you learn, when you go out in the world, and you do eight shows a week for 14 years, is that you should be committed to the action anyway and committed to the people that are onstage with you.”

Gulley says, “You just need an audience in there. You can only go so far without one. It’s an interactive, live event. And you get tired of the director and stage managers all trying to laugh at the same jokes.”

Students also recorded new works. Speer initiated the “Hear Our Voices” project in Fall 2020, then three Spartan New Musicals films over the course of 2021 – “Radio: A Musical Ghost Story,” “Flatbush Avenue,” and “One Week at Woolworths” – all by writers from traditionally marginalized groups.

“They wrote these musical projects for our students specifically, which was so cool,” she says. “We took the reins off of the writers, too, because we wanted them to create.”

It was not easy to transition back to more elaborate productions.

“We’re feeling it this year,” says Haas. “We’ve got more inexperienced students, and we’re rusty at doing the big shows. We haven’t done something as big as ‘SpongeBob’ in two years.”

Speers says those large productions provide great opportunities for mentorship between classes.

“Stage managers mentor the next generation of stage managers. Upperclassmen instill best rehearsal practices by demonstrating them.”

But even with the ongoing mentorship and support, some things are impossible to learn without practice. 

“I had to remind myself during this most recent production of ‘SpongeBob’ that more than half of the cast hadn’t been on stage in a musical at UNCG.”

Embracing change

Theatre students in masks during class
The School of Theatre brought back in-person classes as soon as was safely possible.

Speer now has a deeper appreciation for the stage experience. “I have started really thinking about what makes live performance different from film, and I think that’s audience engagement. I’ve come out of this pandemic interested in theatre that knows it’s theatre.”

The return to big productions did more than reveal what they had to relearn. They had to evaluate what they will keep from the pandemic years.

They say students will see this with professional productions in their future careers.

“One of the things that we’ve been talking about is consent,” says Speer. “That has been long overdue in dance and musical theatre. ‘Hey, is it okay if I touch you? Okay, where can I put my hand? And you can revoke your consent.’ Now is the right time to adopt that.”

Gulley says, “Auditioning by tape, auditioning with your iPhone, or sending in a video, as opposed to auditioning live, is becoming the standard practice now. That levels the playing field a good bit. It allows students who can’t get to New York or Atlanta for an audition a chance at opportunities they might have missed.”

The students’ enthusiasm made all the work worth it.

“There’s plenty of times, they could have just said, ‘Forget this. We’re done. What’s the point?'” says Haas. “Instead, they’ve kept at it, and I’m very appreciative of them for that.”

Story by Janet Imrick, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications

Speaking Center receives Brant Taylor Barrier Free Success Award. Bret Christensen, President and CEO Greensboro Chamber of Commerce; Kim Cuny, Director, UNCG Speaking Center; Abby Salah, Graduate Assistant Director, Speaking Center; Brian Vannoy, EVP & Chief Credit and Risk Officer, Allegancy Federal Credit Union
Left to right: Bret Christensen, President and CEO Greensboro Chamber of Commerce; Kim Cuny, Director, UNCG Speaking Center; Abby Salah, Graduate Assistant Director, Speaking Center; Brian Vannoy, EVP & Chief Credit and Risk Officer, Allegancy Federal Credit Union

The contributions of faculty and students at UNC Greensboro’s Speaking Center are not only breaking down communication barriers, but paving the way for others to continue their efforts beyond the University.

That’s why the Speaking Center received the 2022 Brant Taylor Barrier-Free Success Award from the Greensboro Mayor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities.

The nonprofit says the Speaking Center “always strives for excellence when it comes to promoting inclusion in the Triad Area.”

Kim Cuny, Director, and Abby Salah, Graduate Assistant Director, accepted the award on April 27 at a ceremony hosted by the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce.

“The review committee was especially impressed with the student-authored academic publications on the subject,” says Cuny.

She says not only does students’ work go towards their professional development, it benefits other people working in related fields. “Some center alumni have gone on to helping careers that support people with disabilities. Some students have published essays on the topic in Communication Center Journal. The essays serve as important models for others who want to do this same work.”

Three Communication Studies faculty and 45 students work with the Speaking Center. Their goal is to break down communication barriers faced by people with intellectual and/or developmental disabilities (IDD).

The center has served people with IDD since 2003. They began providing consistent oral communication coaching and instructional programming in 2015.

“As this effort has grown, so too have the competencies of the UNCG faculty and students who do the work,” says Cuny.

The Greensboro Mayor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities focuses on building social, educational, and employment opportunities for people with IDD.

The Brant Taylor Barrier-Free Success Award recognizes individuals and organizations who have made significant contributions to creating that more inclusive environment.

Dr. Roy Schwartzman, Communication Studies Department Head, says, “This award speaks to the ongoing spirit of inclusivity and student/faculty/staff partnerships that the Speaking Center cultivates.”

Story by Janet Imrick, University Communications
Photography courtesy of Greensboro Chamber of Commerce

UNCG students in the classroom

Each year, schools and colleges across UNCG award faculty members for outstanding performance in the classroom. This academic year, seven faculty members have been recognized with Teaching Excellence Awards:

Dr. Heather Moorefield-Lang, Library and Information Studies (School of Education)
Dr. Jason Reddick, Chemistry & Biochemistry (College of Arts and Sciences)
Dr. Brandi Apple, Nursing (School of Nursing)
Dr. Dennis Lajeunesse, Nanoscience (JSNN)
Dr. Sudha Shreeniwas, Human Development & Family Studies (School of Health and Human Sciences)
Dr. Mark Engebretson, Music (College of Visual and Performing Arts)
Dr. Arran Caza, Management (Bryan School)

Story by Janet Imrick, University Communications
Photography by Jiyoung Park, University Communications

Volunteer hands out T-shirt during 2021 SOAR event

The Office of New Student Transitions & First Year Experience is looking for volunteers to help welcome new Spartans and their families to SOAR in June.

Volunteers welcome, direct, and answer general questions. They’re expected to greet SOAR guests with enthusiasm as they arrive and cheerfully direct them to the correct location. Volunteer shifts will be one hour and 30 minutes.

The deadline to sign up for a volunteer shift is Friday, May 20 at 5 p.m.

Click here to sign up for a volunteer shift.

June SOAR Session dates

Transfer SOAR
Wednesday, June 8
Monday, June 20
Wednesday, August 10

Freshman SOAR
Thursday, June 2
Tuesday, June 7
Friday, June 10
Tuesday, June 14
Friday, June 17
Wednesday, June 22
Friday, June 24
Tuesday, June 28
Thursday, June 30
Friday, August 12

If you have any questions, you can contact Jonathan Tunwar at jctunwar@uncg.edu or by phone at 336-334-5231

UNCG Chancellor Frank Gilliam

The UNC System Council of Student Body Presidents has honored Chancellor Gilliam with the 2022 William C. Friday Lifetime Achievement Award. It is given annually to a public figure who has exhibited exemplary service to students.

Council member and UNCG Student Government Association President Hazael Mengesha nominated Gilliam for the award. He accepted it on his behalf Saturday, April 22, on the campus of Western Carolina University during the council’s end-of-year banquet. Mengesha presented the award to Chancellor Gilliam in person on April 25, at a meeting of the UNCG Board of Trustees.

In a message played during the banquet, Chancellor Gilliam said, “I’m truly honored to join the distinguished group of previous winners and am all the more honored to have been chosen by you, our talented and dynamic student leaders who represent our campuses.”

The award is named after revered statesman of American public education, William “Bill” Friday, who was president of the UNC System for 30 years. He worked to repeal the 1963 Speaker Ban Law, which made it illegal for critics of the government to appear on campus. He oversaw the racial desegregation of the University System and its expansion to include all of its 16 sister institutions.

Newly named Goldwater Scholar Beh Reh and Dr. Ramji Bhandari

For the second year in a row, a UNC Greensboro student has been selected for the Goldwater Scholarship, one of the most prestigious STEM-field scholarships in the nation.

It was awarded to Beh Reh, a junior in the Department of Biology, and a STAMPS recipient, studying with Dr. Ramji Bhandari. He was one of 417 students chosen from a pool of more than 5,000 nominated by their institutions.The Goldwater Scholarship Program is one of the oldest and most prestigious national scholarships in the natural sciences, engineering, and mathematics in the United States. Scholars are selected based on their commitment to a STEM research career, display of “intellectual intensity,” and potential for making a significant contribution in their future field of study.

Reh’s story is not a simple one. He was born in a refugee camp on the border between Thailand and Burma, after his parents escaped the ongoing genocide in Myanmar. Some of his early life experiences generated his interest in research, but not because he had access to science in school or through family members.

As a child in an environment with limited resources and health information, he fell ill frequently and visited doctors, who helped him recover. He quickly developed a profound respect for their work and knowledge, and he knew from a very young age that he wanted to study science and medicine so that he could also become a doctor and help people.

“I wanted to understand biology,” he says. “You know – the human body, everything.”

When Reh was nine, his family moved to Massachusetts and then to North Carolina. As a high schooler, he attended UNCG’s Middle College, which allowed him to begin taking college courses when he was only in ninth grade. Reh’s experience with Middle College was fulfilling to him. He found his UNCG professors to be engaging and approachable.

 “I had connections with my professors, even then,” he recalls. “You know, they want to mentor us. Everybody was engaging – the other students too. So, I wanted to go to UNCG because I had that experience.”

 In Reh’s freshman year, Dr. Ramji Bhandari recruited him to join his lab, where the researchers work on mechanisms underlying gene environment interactions and developmental origins of adult-onset and transgenerational health abnormalities. 

Right now, Reh is studying the effects of environmental exposure of potassium perchlorate on the developing primordial germ cells (PGCs) of medaka fish. (PGCs are stem cells that form sperm or eggs in adulthood.)

Medaka fish have rapid development, transparent embryos and easy genetic manipulation, which makes them useful when evaluating potential effects of environmental chemicals on humans. They utilize the same epigenetic mechanisms controlling PGC development as that of humans and other mammals, so the information obtained from research on them can give insights into perchlorate-induced health effects in humans.  

Potassium perchlorate is a compound present in military zones, because it is used in military equipment and artillery, and it has been found in drinking water, air, soil, and breast milk. Reh’s research on medaka fish aims to provide information about how potassium perchlorate affects PGCs, male fertility, and offspring health. His work looks at various levels of perchlorate exposure effects on medaka embryos to see if they have delayed hatching time, reduced heartbeats, and increased developmental deformities. The results suggest that there is an increased chance of infertility with exposure to potassium perchlorate. 

The work that Reh has undertaken with Bhandari and other biology scholars is currently under review for publication, and Reh has presented his work in a number of conferences, including several internationally.

Another of his projects on perchlorate effects on sperm of male medaka and their offspring is in progress, and the researchers are waiting for results from DNA sequencing and analysis.

Outside of the lab, Reh supports youth and fellow students in the UNCG community and beyond. He works with the Epoch Renewal Church, where he helps Karenni and Burmese refugee youth with school assignments. He is also a former volunteer leader for the Youth Leader Corps through the Department of Kinesiology, where he helped with programs for elementary school students. For the young students, many of them refugees themselves, Reh led athletic activities and in building communication and social skills. He  presently serves on the editorial staff of the Lloyd International Honors College magazine, where he enjoys working with fellow UNCG students on their writing.

With the Goldwater Scholarship, Reh will be able to spend even more time in the lab, where he has been mentored and where he has become a mentor himself, of other students.

“My mentor Dr. Bhandari has provided me with many opportunities – and one of them is to help others,” he says.

That goes along with his lifelong goal.

“My purpose is to help people, serve them. I will become a doctor and help them with their pain, be able to do surgery, and help them walk again.”

Story by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications