No triskaidekaphobia – fear of the number 13 – only smiles, cheers and applause during today’s mid-year graduation exercises at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

UMES awarded 335 degrees, including 274 to undergraduates who heard an uplifting message from a long-time friend and political ally of former President Bill Clinton.

Richard L. Mays Sr., a former Arkansas state supreme court justice, deftly drew on recent current events as inspiration for his commencement speech to a near-capacity crowd in the William P. Hytche Athletic Center.

He encouraged graduates to be dreamers and pointed to Nelson Mandela, who died a week ago. Mandela spent 27 years in jail for his activism as an anti-apartheid crusader, yet became president of the nation that put him behind bars for opposing government-sanctioned discrimination.

“He had to dream,” Mays said. “I don’t know how I could dream that long,” adding “he forgave those who put him in captivity.”

Mays also told graduates they should not take lightly President Barack Obama’s place in history.

“I never thought I would be talking, in 2013, in the United States with an African-American president in office,” May said. “I know that he had to dream” to achieve getting elected to America’s highest office.

“Dreaming is the responsibility of the have-nots” to find a pathway to overcome adversity, Mays said.

Shana Washington of Philadelphia delivered the student commentary and she, too, invoked Mandela, reminding classmates he famously said “education is the most powerful weapon, which you can use to change the world.”

Washington chose to study at a historically black institution because it impressed her as a teen to see “so many African-Americans as a whole working to better themselves.”

“I knew higher education had not always been an option for us as black people,” the former student government president said. “And I wanted to take full advantage of the opportunity.”

UMES President Juliette B. Bell took the opportunity to recognize two history-making sportsmen and a philanthropist who holds the duo in high regard.
Bell presented presidential medallions to retired pro golfers Calvin Peete and James Black as well as Baltimore businessman Carnelious Jones in recognition of their contributions to the sport. Peete and Black were among the first African-Americans to play on the PGA tour and Jones is campaigning to further diversify the game, including a donation to support scholarships at UMES.

Jones, Black and Peete all said receiving the recognition will rank among their fondest memories.

Also sporting medallions at Friday’s commencement were Ian Bottone, Siddig Mohamed, Ebony Odinde, Megan Powell and Brooke Stacey. They are the first graduates from the Richard A. Henson Honors Program to receive a new form of recognition from the university. All five had high enough grade point averages to graduate with honors.

And Friday’s graduation also closed a chapter on an academic program in transition. Ten physician assistant undergraduate students are the last to receive a Bachelor of Science degree from UMES, which is now offering only a master’s-level program in the discipline. Earlier this year, the university admitted its first class of 36 graduate students.