“We don’t get to choose our times but we do get to shape our times. In a democracy, that is especially relevant and it is a special responsibility for every citizen and for every member of this graduating class. Class of 2024 the nation needs your gifts, the nation needs your resilience, and the nation needs your service.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III delivers the keynote address at S.C. State’s commencement exercises. 

U.S. Secretary of Defense Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III challenged the 251 South Carolina State University graduates gathered in a light to steady rain at Oliver C. Dawson Stadium Friday morning to put service above self as they embark on their individual journeys after graduation.

South Carolina State University graduates enter the Oliver C. Dawson Stadium for their commencement exercises on Friday, May 10. 

“Find ways to make change to contribute and to be a part of something bigger than yourself,” Austin said. “We need all of you to give back in your own way. Go find your own path. In times like these, civic engagement is not optional.”

“It will not always be easy but we need you out there,” Austin said. “You have got to put in the work.”

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Austin expressed his confidence in the Class of 2024 as the class that during its freshman year had to contend with remote learning during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You can call it grit, you can call it hustle, but around here we call it Bulldog tenacity,” Austin said, also giving a shout out to the 10 newly commissioned second lieutenants who were a part of the SCSU ROTC Bulldog Battalion.

A West Point graduate and four-star general, Austin is the first African American to serve as the U.S. secretary of defense.

President Joe Biden spoke at SC State’s commencement on Dec. 17, 2021.

Austin related how he grew up in Georgia during the time of Jim Crow and was one of the first students to integrate his local high school.

“Those were hard days, painful days, ugly days,” he said. “I am still moved by the memory of every person who fought to make sure I could get a good public education. I still remember their determination and their decency. I still carry forward their lesson, which is living up to this country’s founding values means bringing everyone along and leaving no one out.”

“You never know what we lose when we leave someone out,” Austin continued. “We don’t have one American to spare. We don’t have one citizen to squander. That means we need to keep working together to knock down barriers and to level the playing field and let everybody compete to win.”

Austin said SCSU has equipped the students to excel.

He noted the university trains more nuclear engineers than any school in the country and the National Security Agency has designated the university as a center of academic excellence in cyber defense.

“This university educates its graduates for the jobs of the future and it has prepared you for the challenges ahead,” Austin said.

He also noted HBCU’s produce 40% of America’s Black engineers, 50% of Black lawyers, 70% of doctors and dentists, and 80% of judges.

South Carolina State University graduating senior Levette S. McRae is an example of a student who has overcome challenges to become a national student leader in speech pathology.

“It means a lot,” McRae said when asked his thoughts on graduating. “Being a gay African American male and coming from a single-parent household, it was about perseverance and remaining steadfast. I believed in myself and challenged myself every day to be better, not only as a person but also in my academics.”

McRae, who is graduating with a degree in speech-language pathology and audiology, reflected on his time as a freshman during COVID.

“It was a big pandemic,” McRae said. “I was looking at life and wondering what was going to happen with school. Do I go to school? Do I stay home?”

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Despite COVID and other normal challenges of being in a new place, McRae ended up taking on various leadership positions and actively participating in multiple student organizations during his four years.

He served as vice president of the NAACP, secretary of the Student Government Association (SGA) junior class and captain of the university’s cheerleading squad.

He was also an ambassador for the SC State Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology.

Earlier in May, McRae was named the Student Advocate of the Year at the 46th National Black Association for Speech-Language and Hearing Conference.

McRae’s efforts have led him to be named the National Student Speech-Language Hearing Association state officer for South Carolina, secretary for the National LGBTQ+ Communication Science and Disorders Student Association, and an ambassador for the Head to Speech Organization.

McRae does not plan to stop his pursuit of excellence.

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The 22-year old is to attend Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia, where he wants to receive his master’s degree in communicative sciences and disorders and then eventually to attend the University of Houston, where he wants to receive his Ph.D. in neuroscience with a concentration in neurodevelopment and neurodevelopment disorders.

Bamberg County resident Xenia Johnson is another student having faced challenges. She is deaf and a mother to her son, Jaxson.

She had to withdraw from SCSU in the fall of 2016 when she got pregnant but came back to complete her degree in August 2022. If that is not enough, COVID required her to stay at home with her son while still going to school remotely.

Despite all this, she is graduating with a degree in family consumer sciences in child development.

“I’m very excited to graduate as the first deaf person at SC State University,” Johnson said. “I had few challenges, including an interpreter virtually not in person, but I made it!”

Following graduation from SCSU, Johnson will pursue a masters degree from the University of Arizona or Converse University and work at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind as an associate teacher.

While rainfall kept much of the event wet, peeks of sunshine began to show as degrees were being conferred.

“Rain is temporary,” SCSU President Alexander Conyers said. “This degree from South Carolina State University is forever.”

SCSU trustee Chair Douglas Gantt said the day is beginning for graduates.

“It is the beginning of something beyond what you could ever imagine. It the beginning of something greater than any of us. You are about to use what you learned not just for your personal gain but also for the betterment of the world around you.”

Referring to COVID-19, Gantt noted the class has overcome challenges and expressed confidence they would continue to do so.

“If anyone has earned the right to be called a Bulldog, it is the class of 2024,” Gantt said. “You are truly primed for a great legacy, so now show us what you got.”

Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.

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