Laura Hylton celebrates at Brenau's commencement ceremony on May 1. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Brenau University holds first in-person commencement ceremonies since 2019

May 1, 2021
Brenau Staff

Brenau University graduates and their guests gathered Friday and Saturday, April 30 and May 1, on the Front Lawn of the university’s historic Gainesville campus for a series of four commencement ceremonies celebrating the classes of 2020 and 2021.

The ceremonies, held for The Women’s College on Friday and all other undergraduate and graduate students on Saturday, marked the university’s first in-person commencements since December 2019. In total, 460 graduates representing Brenau’s more than 1,100 graduates in 2020 and 2021 were in attendance.

In her keynote address, Brenau President Anne Skleder commended students for their dedication in the face of adversity and recognized those who helped students along the way.

“On this day of celebration of your achievements, we must remember that we achieve nothing completely alone,” said Skleder, thanking faculty and staff members for their committed and compassionate support of students during trying times and acknowledging the “first teachers” who helped graduates get to this point.

“Your moms, your dads, your grandparents, your sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, godparents, cousins, friends,” Skleder said. “Whether it is a ride to school, a home-cooked meal when you most needed it, help with purchasing books, those extra funds when you need them, a shoulder to lean on during finals, your family and friends were there for you.”

Skleder then shared a quote from the esteemed Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.: “A mind that is stretched by new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

“Can you imagine a year when you were more stretched?” said Skleder, recounting the many sacrifices made by students during the pandemic as well as their willingness to stand together against social injustice, embrace civil discourse and contribute positively to their communities.

Kendy Manzano, 2020 graduate of The Women’s College, smiles during commencement on Friday, April 30. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

“You loved deeply, you feared nothing, you hated never. You carried on the Brenau Ideal during the exact times we need it — difficult times. Because you stretched.”

Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Jim Eck welcomed all those in attendance to the ceremonies, which included socially distanced pods of three seats for graduates and their two guests. Attendees were also required to wear masks and complete an online screening questionnaire prior to their arrival.

“We have patiently anticipated this day across the past four semesters,” Eck said. “I am nearly overwhelmed by the opportunity to celebrate commencement in person and our students have earned their diplomas at a time of great historical challenge. They have persevered, and we celebrate their graduation today.”

Like so many of Brenau’s newest alumni, fashion design graduate and 2019-2020 Baxter-Bryan Scholarship recipient Kendy Manzano was eager to return to campus and experience an in-person commencement after missing out last year.

“Even though I graduated a year ago, I feel like that chapter of my life still remained open,” Manzano said. “So I’m very excited to get back to campus and finally celebrate this important milestone of my life.”

Manzano currently works in the art department at a custom apparel company in Athens, Georgia, and credited Brenau for preparing her for the challenges of the past year.

“Brenau does a great job of empowering women so they are not afraid to do the things they want to do or follow their dreams,” Manzano said, “I’ve had two jobs since leaving Brenau, and I’ve had a lot of confidence in both of those positions because Brenau gave me that confidence.”

About 150 of The Women’s College’s 238 total graduates from 2020 and 2021 were on hand for Friday’s commencement, while about a third of the 902 graduates in all other undergraduate and graduate programs — which includes all campuses and online — attended Saturday. In 2020 and 2021 combined, Brenau conferred 649 undergraduate degrees and 491 advanced degrees, with 260 of the latter coming from the Ivester College of Health Sciences.

During The Women’s College ceremony, Brenau presented Willette Davis with a posthumous degree in mass communication for her daughter, Keiara Ivory Lyons, who passed away in November 2020.

The family of Keiara Lyons after receiving a posthumous degree in her honor. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

“Keiara was known to be welcoming and genuine, and was always present with a word of encouragement when it was needed most,” Eck said. “Although humble, Keiara had an immense passion for the things and people she loved, and she showed many a true example of love, loyalty, and friendship. Always keeping in mind the representation of herself and others, she embodied grace and respect in all aspects of her life. With the heart of a servant leader, her impact on her peers, our campus and the community will not soon be forgotten.”

During The Women’s College ceremony, Brenau University Trustee Emeritus Philip Wilheit was presented with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters by Skleder and Board of Trustees Chair Mike Smith. Wilheit served on Brenau’s Board of Trustees for more than three decades, taking on the extra duties as vice chairman for 14 of those years. After graduating from Sewanee: The University of the South, Wilheit joined the company founded by his father, Wilheit Packaging, where he has worked for over 50 years and now serves as president and managing partner.

Wilheit is also heavily involved in the community, serving on dozens of boards, commissions and committees including the Georgia Chamber of Commerce for over 20 years, the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, Northeast Georgia Health System and, as chairman, the Gainesville-Hall County Development Authority all for over 40 years. He has served on the University System of Georgia Board of Regents since 2011, where he is a former chairman.

“I am humbled beyond belief,” said a surprised Wilheit, joking that he looked forward to calling his brother, who has a doctorate in physics, to tell him they are equals now.

“This is a wonderful gift to me and my family, and I’m so glad that President Skleder recognized the energies that my family has put into Brenau over the many years,” Wilheit said. “Thank you all so much for this wonderful, wonderful honor.”

From left, Brenau Board of Trustees Chair Mike Smith, Brenau University Trustee Emeritus Philip Wilheit and Brenau President Anne Skleder. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

The commencement ceremonies also included several firsts, including the first two graduates of the university’s Doctorate in Education program. Brenau also recognized its first interior design graduates of its partnership programs with Anhui Normal University in Wuhu, China. Altogether, 78 students from Anhui graduated in 2020 and 2021, with 43 Bachelors of Arts in English, 30 Bachelors of Science in early childhood education and five Bachelors of Fine Arts in interior design conferred.

Ashley Carter, WC ’09, BU ’12, director of alumni and constituent engagement, congratulated the graduates, who are now part of more than 25,000 Brenau alumni worldwide.

“As a graduate, you represent the greatness of our university,” Carter said. “Your past accomplishments, your future achievements, the way you live your life and the values that mold you reflect upon the educational values of Brenau.”

Despite all the challenges, Skleder ensured graduates that their experience at Brenau will not be defined by a pandemic.

“Your education, for now, will be defined as a triumph in your life, a triumph because you stretched,” she said. “Please savor this moment, be as proud of yourself as we are of you. Be courageous. Use your stretched mind and your stretched heart every day.”