Claflin University awarded degrees to 150 graduates on Friday, with University President Dr. Dwaun Warmack acknowledging several graduates from the stage.

Among them was 57-year-old Earnestine Cochran, the oldest graduate in the class. Warmack thanked Cochran “for continuing to persevere and fight through to the finish” to applause from the audience and other graduates.

Cochran did not expect the president to acknowledge her during the ceremony.

“My heart stopped,” she said, laughing. “That made me very emotional. I shed a couple tears, but it was awesome.”

Cochran was surprised on the morning of Dec. 8, but she shocked her own family on Thanksgiving when she said she’d be graduating. Completing her courses online, she hadn’t told anyone that she returned to school until just two weeks before graduation.

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A teller at South State Bank in Orangeburg, Cochran returned to school after many years to finish her degree and help further her career.

She had to balance a job and classwork and struggled with a days-long hospital stay while battling COVID-19.

Finally having the diploma in her hand felt “wonderful,” she said.

“There’s nothing like it,” she said. “It’s an awesome feeling.”

She was joined at Friday’s commencement by her husband, son, daughters and sister-in-law.

“She has accomplished something that will shine in our family for a long time,” sister-in-law Minnie Dickerson said. “I thank God for this moment, I thank God for her shining and I thank God for her setting the example for the next one to come along.”

Cochran encourages other non-traditional students to start or finish their college education.

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in organizational management from Claflin’s Organizational Leadership Program.

Marva Smalls gave the commencement address. Smalls is executive vice president and global head of inclusion for Paramount and executive vice president of public affairs at Nickelodeon.

Smalls graduated from the University of South Carolina but often came to Claflin as president of the Youth and College Division of the NAACP and for the energy of an HBCU, she said.

Smalls commended the graduates for persevering through COVID-19; the high-profile killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks and others; assaults on democracy and voting rights; wars in Europe and the Middle East and climate change.

Claflin has prepared the graduates to help fix problems members of her generation helped create, she said.

“I’m not trying to be Debbie Downer, but the fact is the world you are entering upon this day is radically different from the world you entered when you started Claflin,” she said. “And it’s a world that needs changing, and it’s a world that needs you to be the change makers.”

Smalls encouraged the class to follow a list of axioms she uses in her own life, including:

• Stay true to themselves

• Step outside their comfort zones

• Encourage and listen to others

She also announced she would be donating $25,000 to the university.

Family was a common theme at the ceremony.

Warmack acknowledged Marcus Burgess II, who graduated with an education degree. His father Marcus Burgess Sr. is vice president for Institutional Advancement at Claflin and graduated from Claflin, as did his father, who was also in attendance.

Burgess Sr., who has served for the entirety of Warmack’s tenure, spoke to the graduates for the last time as he welcomed them into the alumni association.

Burgess is leaving to become president of St. Augustine University in North Carolina, Warmack said.

Warmack said he was honored to serve with Burgess and thanked him for his service to the university.

“This is definitely a bittersweet moment, but I’m so happy to share it with the Claflin family,” Burgess said before leading the graduates, including his son, in a chant.

Over half of the graduates are their family’s first college students and 70% are recipients of some kind of financial aid, Warmack said.

The president also recognized several full-time university staff members who were graduating, as well as the 11 inaugural graduates of the family nurse practitioner master’s program.

He asked the audience to stand to recognize the family, friends and support systems of the graduates.

“It takes a family and a village to do this work,” he said. “Students, you wouldn’t have been able to do it without your village.”

Class valedictorian Jada Sina Brown, a political science major, addressed the class. Brown overcame health challenges to graduate and plans to attend law school and eventually become an advocate for youths in the criminal justice system, Provost Karl Wright said.

“We have so much to look forward to,” Brown said. “What feels like the end is often the beginning. My challenge to each of us is to continue to dream big. In high school, you may have been told to reach for the stars, but now is our time to reach beyond the stars.”

Warmack encouraged graduates to return to the university as alumni.

“I wish you continued success and many blessings,” Warmack said. “We are here with you. Graduation is just the beginning. We look forward to going on to do amazing work but more importantly we look forward to you coming home to celebrate at Claflin University.”

Contact the writer: or 803-533-5553. Follow on Twitter: @bozardcaleb.

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