The College of Charleston’s iconic Spring Commencement exercises got underway on Friday afternoon with the first of three ceremonies.

More than 600 graduates from the College’s Graduate School; School of the Arts; School of Education, Health and Human Performance; and School of Professional Studies received degree on Friday, May 11, 2018. (Photos by Reese Moore)

More than 600 degree candidates from the College’s Graduate School; School of the Arts; School of Education, Health and Human Performance; and School of Professional Studies walked across the Cistern on May 11, 2018, to accept their well-earned diplomas.

Two additional ceremonies for graduates from the College’s other academic schools will take place on Saturday, May 12, at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. in Cistern Yard.

RELATED: View the spring commencement program with the names of all graduates.

Dressed in white dinner jackets and dresses, Friday’s graduates processed from behind the stately columns of Randolph Hall to tidy rows of seats on stage, the long-awaited culmination of their academic journey.

“I’m just overwhelmed and excited that I’ve overcome all of my obstacles in life, and I finally made it and am graduating from a prestigious college,” said Bryanna Wright, who earned a degree in early childhood education. “I’ve learned so much and made so many great friends and had so many great professors, and I’m just so grateful for the opportunity and the blessing.”

The graduates’ families, friends, and professors – seated below the yard’s mossy canopy of oaks – beamed with pride as the day’s speakers lavished praise upon and offered advice to the Class of 2018.

Diana Mayes fanned herself in the afternoon heat as she sat in Cistern Yard waiting for the graduates to take the stage. Her daughter, Collette Mayes, graduated Friday with a bachelor’s degree in professional studies from the College’s School of Professional Studies. Diana Mayes said her daughter first entered the College just out of high school many years ago, but had to drop out before earning her degree. As the decades passed, Mayes said her daughter never gave up on her dream of earning a degree. She finally returned to the College two years ago, and through persistence and hard work she finished this time.

“She wanted to go back and finish what she started,” Diana Mayes said. “This is her time now.”

Artist and commencement speaker Brian Rutenberg “87 and President Glenn McConnell ’69.

CofC alumnus and renowned abstract artist Brian Rutenberg ’87 was the featured commencement speaker at Friday’s ceremony. A native of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Rutenberg often credits his success and inspiration as a painter to the immersive arts education he received in the College’s School of the Arts and the natural beauty of the South Carolina Lowcountry.

At the College, Rutenberg studied under professors and artists William Halsey and Michael Tyzack, both now deceased, before earning a bachelor of fine arts and going on to establish himself as a highly prolific and bold artist known for his liberal use of paint to create dimension and texture in his works. He earned an M.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts in New York City in 1989 and later won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Ireland in 1997.

He has had over 200 exhibitions throughout North America and his works are in the collections of museums around the country, including the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston. He now resides in New York City, where he maintains a painting studio and creates content for a popular video blog on YouTube.

Several of Rutenberg’s family members were in attendance at the ceremony, including his wife, two children and his two brothers, John Rutenberg and Michael Rutenberg, who are both alumni of the College of Charleston.

Rutenberg encouraged the graduates to not only be creative beings but to also share their work, art, and ideas with the world.

“Spend the rest of your lives becoming two people inhabiting one body: a Maker and a Talker,” he said. “Make something and then tell everyone about it.”

He left the graduates with five takeaways from his remarks: Be your own best friend, be kind, send handwritten thank you notes on fine stationary, let the arts nourish your soul, and be astonished.

President Glenn McConnell with honorary degree recipients Eugene J. Gangarosa Sr. and Rose Salamone Gangarosa.

Also receiving honorary degrees at Friday’s ceremony were Eugene J. Gangarosa Sr. and Rose Salamone Gangarosa, a couple whose generosity has funded global field experiences for students in the College’s public health program. Their son, Paul Gangarosa, is an adjunct faculty member in the College’s Department of Health and Human Performance.

Eugene Gangarosa is a physician, research scientist and lifelong advocate for water, sanitation and hygiene throughout the world. He serves as an emeritus professor in the Hubert Department of Global Health at Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and is the founder of the Gangarosa International Health Foundation

Rose Salamone Gangarosa is a lifelong educator and champion of water, sanitation and hygiene throughout the world, founder and board member of the Gangarosa International Health Foundation and former principal of Lahore American School in Pakistan.

Presiding over the final spring commencement of his presidency, CofC President Glenn McConnell ’69 welcomed the graduates into the College’s alumni family and encouraged them to return to their alma mater as often as possible.

“This will always be your home,” McConnell said. “No matter what stage of life you are in, no matter where in the world you live, no matter what exciting careers you pursue, the College of Charleston is forever a part of your DNA.”