Graduation at the College of Charleston is a special occasion. It conjures visions of the Cistern Yard filled with well-attired students and faculty in full academic regalia surrounded by crowds of well-wishers. And although winter commencement is a little different, the ceremony is just as meaningful.
This year, on the afternoon of Saturday, Dec. 17, 2022, in TD Arena, Cougar Nation will celebrate the more than 300 graduates (over 300 undergraduates and dozens of graduate students) who have achieved this all-important milestone of earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Let’s meet a few of these exceptional individuals.
Native Charlestonian Eleanore Fish has been extraordinarily busy as a student at the College. This month, she’s graduating with a bachelor’s degree in public health, but she’s already a member of the alumni. Last spring, she received her B.A. in political science. It wouldn’t surprise anyone who knows her that this Honors College grad successfully juggled the demands of two majors along with her role as a student-athlete on one of the nation’s most successful equestrian teams. And, at the same time, she was involved in student government (junior class senator), the Outdoors Club (vice president and social media coordinator), the Political Science Club and the Spanish Club.
“I’m a curious person,” Fish explains. “I enjoy learning. That’s one of the reasons I chose the Honors College. And, I have a lot of different interests, so being involved in several clubs and organizations helped me explore new areas outside my academic interests. It’s been a great way to meet people and make connections and essentially make the most out of my college experience.”
A highlight of her time at the College, she says, was the research project she conducted for her bachelor’s essay in public health. Under the guidance of Kathleen Trejo Tello, assistant professor of health and human performance, she examined the access to physical activity for older adults who were living in long-term care homes in South Carolina during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I don’t think that many people get the opportunity to participate in hands-on research of their own design,” Fish says, “so that was empowering. And, being able to conduct interviews in person after enduring the many restrictions of the pandemic was a welcome change.”
Fish says she isn’t certain exactly what career path she’ll pursue, but she’s very interested health policy.
“When you examine the curricula of political science and public health,” she says, “there’s really a lot of overlap in these fields. And given what’s happened in recent years – the pandemic – these are now both very relevant areas.”
Another alumnus in the offing is Rob Concannon, a non-traditional student who many recognize as president of the South Carolina Stingrays – Charleston’s professional hockey team. He left college over two decades ago to focus on his career in the sport of hockey. More recently, he decided to finish his undergraduate degree, and now he’s graduating as a major in professional studies with a concentration in organizational management.
“When I first considered going back to school,” Concannon says, “I got discouraged because they told me I needed 21 classes to graduate. A little later, I learned about the Bachelor of Professional Studies Program and realized that I could accomplish all of it online. Being married with a full-time job and 11-year-old twins was going to make it tough to be on campus. So having the opportunity to do all the classes online was the best – that really helped.”
Concannon says finishing his degree is very important. He not only wanted to set a good example for his kids, he also wanted to augment the skills he’s developed as a business executive.
“The organizational management concentration really fits into my role with the South Carolina Stingrays,” he says. “In my day-to-day work overseeing the business side of things, it helps that I’m now a better leader. I’ve learned that through the courses I took. And because I also work closely with the coaches and the players, I’m able to apply much of what I learned to those situations as well.”
Concannon says that all of the professors he’s studied under at the College have been amazing. “In particular, Wendy Stephens (associate director of academic advising services in the School of Business’ Student Success Center) and Graeme Coetzer (visiting assistant professor of management and marketing) have been great to work with. I’ve been in Charleston for 27 years now, and I’ve been in my role with the Stingrays for the last 13 years. I’m not sure what’s on the horizon for me, but I can tell you that finishing my degree ranks up there as one of my biggest accomplishments in life. And I know it’s made me a better leader!”
Azel Womble is graduating as a double major in middle grades education and arts management, and he’s also a member of the Call Me MISTER program. For this Charleston native, professional life will begin straight away. Throughout December, Womble will work as a substitute teacher. Then, in early January, he’ll formally start his career as a sixth- and seventh-grade English teacher at Carolina Voyager Charter School in Charleston County.
Regarding his future, Womble says he’s really psyched about teaching. “I just finished my teacher training as an intern at the school where I’ll be working next month and it was amazing. I learned so much and met so many great people. And, working with those kids is just so inspiring.”
Though he admits to being the kind of person who doesn’t customarily join groups, Womble says that participating in the Call Me MISTER program, which helps prepare young men of color to become teachers, has been a highlight of his time at the College.
“I really found a sense of brotherhood there,” he offers. “Call Me MISTER enabled me to both be involved and be myself. It’s a strong program and there’s a sense that you’re collectively building toward something good, which I found very appealing.”
Other highlights of his time at CofC, says Womble, include participating in the SPECTRA Program, competing as part of the College’s crew team, taking film courses and getting to know many of the Black staff members and faculty at the College. “I’ll always remember those people,” he says. “They were amazingly supportive.”
In the future, Womble says he would like to work in a capacity that brings his arts and education backgrounds together, perhaps with an educational nonprofit.
“I’m an artistic person,” he says, “and I have personal aspirations in the arts, but vocationally, what I aspire to do is to contribute to other people. And being a teacher enables me to do that.”
Then there’s Chloe VanderMolen, who describes herself as a scientist, an environmentalist and an amateur photographer. To paint a complete picture, however, you’d have to add a few more descriptors. She’s also a wife, a mother of two young children, a full-time scientist working for the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and a soon to be double master’s graduate of the College’s unique concurrent program in environmental and sustainability studies and public administration.
As an undergraduate, VanderMolen found herself curious about how the research she was conducting – spending hours staring into a microscope to examine 1,000 years of charcoal and pollen – had significance for someone who wasn’t a scientist in her field. That concern led her to adopt a broader approach to science; one that incorporates a public-service perspective. Essentially, she’s interested in the application of scientific research and how it can positively impact individuals and communities.
“Many scientists are specialists,” VanderMolen says, “but I’m more of a generalist. My interests are a mile wide and an inch deep, but I’m keen to understand how the work we do as scientists can impact our communities.”
Fortunately, she’ll soon be in a position to pursue that interest. VanderMolen recently applied for and was awarded a Knauss Fellowship, a very competitive and prestigious national award. Recipients are paid for a full year to work in the area of ocean, coastal or Great Lakes resources and policy. In her case, VanderMolen will be with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management as a just transition strategist to advance the interests of marginalized communities across the Gulf region and the Carolinas that have unequal access to renewable energy sources.
“Ultimately,” she says, “I aspire to be a senior leader within a scientific organization working to influence a greater recognition of the human impact that scientific exploration can have. I love science and I value the scientific approach, but it shouldn’t be conducted in a vacuum. It’s important that we include and value all perspectives when working to solve the complex problems that can be informed by scientific research. In this way, organizations can work to improve the quality of life for those who are looking for sustainable solutions.”
And finally, meet Margaret Hanley, a geology major who is graduating with honors. After commencement, she’ll enjoy a brief holiday from academics before plunging into a fully funded master’s program in early January studying marine sciences at the University of South Florida.
Hanley says she found her tribe when she when she discovered the College’s geology department.
“I originally chose a different major,” she says, “but a geology course I took really galvanized my interest and right away I discovered how supportive and welcoming that department is. All the professors have been amazingly accommodating.”
Hanley found her way to the BEAMS (BEnthic Acoustic Mapping and Survey) Program, the College’s seafloor mapping research program, and earned an internship with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through that.
“I really enjoyed the software classes you have to do for BEAMS,” Hanley explains, “and I discovered that I like being out on the water. I spent a month in the middle of the Atlantic last summer conducting research as part of that internship. And it was a real plus knowing that 100 percent of the graduates who do this program get jobs in this field right away. That was reassuring for my parents.”
When asked to cite highlights from her time at the College, Hanley points to the geology department as a whole.
“The people who work there along with the students make it really easy to feel like you belong,” she says. “There’s a strong sense of community and it’s easy to find friends. We all hang out after classes because the group is so close-knit. And the field studies experience that I did – a month camping along the Colorado River testing water quality – was a definite highlight. One of the best things about the College of Charleston is how much the professors care about their students and work to prepare them for their next stage of life.”
Winter commencement will begin at 2 p.m. in TD Arena on Saturday, Dec. 17. Mark Buono ’81, interim director of the Carter Real Estate Center, will be the commencement speaker. For additional information, visit commencement.cofc.edu.