Nathaniel Walker said the fact that he’s an Elizabeth City State University (ECSU) graduate likely won’t hit him until next semester when he realizes he doesn’t have to pack up to return to campus next semester.

“Being a graduate doesn’t feel real,” he said.

Walker, the now former Sound of Class Marching Band Drum Major, and his nearly 200 classmates walked into their reality Saturday as part of the university’s 177th commencement ceremony. The keynote speaker leaving ECSU’s newest alumni with encouraging words was the National Football League’s (NFL) first African American woman coach, Collette V. Smith.

Her message was simple – be a leader.

“A true leader doesn’t stay on somebody else’s course. They make their own,” she said. “Know that you are equipped with a stellar education from ECSU. Be the leader you would follow. It’s game time. Let’s go.”

Per ECSU tradition, the Bearer of the Mace is the graduate who entered ECSU as a first-time freshman and has the highest cumulative grade point average (GPA) in the graduating class while the Bearer of the Shield is the student who entered the university as a transfer student and has the highest cumulative GPA in the graduating class. Carrie Mora-Rios is one of four Bearer of the Shield graduates recognized.

Considered a non-traditional student, Rios is mother to three adult daughters and leaves ECSU with a Bachelor of Science degree in Homeland Security.

“It was a great honor to be chosen as Bearer of the Shield. This honor proves that it’s never too late to get a degree and that hard work really pays off,” she said.

The strategic recruitment and subsequent success of adult learners like Rios, and graduate students has been key to the university’s continued growth in enrollment during the fall semester.

Chancellor Karrie G. Dixon’s pride for all graduates was apparent in her encouraging remarks and her echo of Smith’s sentiments to graduates.

“It’s game time,” Dixon said, “and these graduates are prepared to go out there and win.”

Also as part of the ceremony, Dixon and Military Science Professor, Lt. Col. Julie Kendrick, recognized two graduates who have been commissioned in the U.S. Army - 2nd lt. Liquan Sharod Bond and 2nd lt. Quaysia Thomas.

Photos of the commencement and commissioning ceremonies are available on ECSU’s Facebook, Instagram and Tiktok. The full commencement ceremony can be found here.