N.C. First Lady to Campbell grads: ‘As long as you’re learning, you’re growing’

Kristen Cooper compared graduation speeches to skywriting: Those words go out into the air and are soon blown away and never seen again.

“I’ve told my daughter’s high school graduating class that college may not be all happiness and laughter … that there might be loneliness and stress. But I have a feeling you already know that,” she said. “I’ve told fifth graders to ignore middle school bullies; that comfort will come to them in other ways. But you know that, too.

“But life still has a lot to teach you. So my advice is listen. As long as you’re learning, you’re growing.” 

The First Lady of North Carolina and 1982 graduate of Campbell Law School returned to Buies Creek Saturday to serve as commencement speaker for Campbell University’s Winter Commencement at the John W. Pope Convocation Center. 

The University celebrated 463 total graduates from the summer and fall semesters — including 39 Doctor of Physical Therapy, eight Juris Doctorate, three Doctor of Pharmacy, 22 Master of Business Administration, 13 Master of Trust and Wealth Management, six Master of Education, seven Master of School Administration, two Master of Arts, 12 Master of Science and three Master of Physician Assistant Practice degrees. 

In addition to serving as commencement speaker, Cooper was the recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, which “honors those whose strength of character and civic contributions” reflect the life of the 19th Century philanthropist. As First Lady, Cooper has used her platform to champion the well-being of children in North Carolina, focusing primarily on issues of foster care, child abuse and neglect, childhood hunger, early childhood development and literacy, and access to the arts and nature.

“Leading with purpose, as I know you’ve already learned here, may call you someday to give your time and talents to someone who needs it, even if they don’t necessarily deserve it,” said Cooper, who also told the graduates and their families in Gore Arena to cherish their time on Earth and do the things that make them better and happier people. 

Time is a subject all too familiar to Brian Ellis, a former U.S. Army Special Forces medical sergeant who graduated Saturday with a bachelor of science degree in health sciences. “It’s taken me 20 years to get a degree, between deployments,” Ellis said following commencement. “Now that I’ve done it, all I can say is ‘finally.’”

If Ellis felt he was late in receiving his degree, sports management graduate and Big South All Conference basketball player Hayley Barber was early. With a semester of basketball left in her college career, Barber received her degree Saturday, thanks to “extra work and some summer school.” 

“It wasn’t easy on top of my schedule as an athlete,” Barber said, “but I did it. My advice to student athletes is just dream big.” 


  • Campbell Board of Trustees Chair Ben Thompson welcomed the graduates and their families Saturday, saying he was confident these new alumni would leave the campus well prepared for a purposeful and meaningful life. “I speak from the perspective of someone who is 40 years removed from his own Campbell experience. Since my graduation, my appreciation for an education from Campbell has only increased,” Thompson said. “Four decades from now, I hope you have the same joy and appreciation for your alma mater that I do.” 

  • Campbell President J. Bradley Creed and his wife Kathy were unable to attend Saturday’s commencement in Buies Creek, because they were attending a different ceremony in Alabama. Their daughter, Carrie Grace Creed, earned her degree from Samford University in Birmingham on Saturday.

  • A few messages from graduation caps — “It always seems impossible until it’s done … Thanks Mom & Dad.” “A whole new world awaits (with Aladdin theme).” “The one where I graduate (Friends theme).” “Faith, trust and pixie dust.” And finally, “Good bye everyone. I’ll see you all in therapy.”