Charlotte Commencement Celebrates Community

After JWU Charlotte’s Commencement ceremony, new graduate Alijah Jameson ’24 interviewed his peers about their post-graduation plans. They will not be sitting still for one minute — whether taking a product development job in New Jersey or heading to Idaho to supervise banquets. One student will continue her work with Omni Hotels. Another will work in fine dining while building up her own catering business. One student plans to take a break after touring Mozambique, Morocco, Thailand, Malaysia, India and South Africa with Semester at Sea.

These answers say a lot about Charlotte students’ focus and ambition. The close-knit community of the campus was also on display during Commencement, particularly when Professor Don Taylor came out to introduce student speaker Adalis Vazquez '24. The crowd cheered for Taylor, who was retiring after 16 years of teaching sociology.

Charlotte Campus President Richard Mathieu said of Taylor, “He isn’t just an educator; he’s a mentor, a guide, and a source of inspiration for all who know him.” Visibly moved, Taylor explained that he would “miss Johnson & Wales tremendously. Thank you for all the experiences, every one of you.” More cheers.

Taylor reintroduced Adalis, who kicked off the ceremony by singing the National Anthem with her fellow student, Makaela Williams '27. “Adalis is not only a passionate culinary artist but also a dynamic explorer of the arts, from music to dance,” Taylor explained. “With a fervent dedication to her craft and a desire to expand her horizons, she embodies the spirit of innovation and exploration.”

“Today, as we don our caps and gowns, it is crucial to recognize the unique bond that unites us.” Adalis Vazquez '24

Landscape view of the JWU Charlotte Commencement stage.

In her speech, Adalis again evoked a shared sense of community. “Each of us came to JWU with our own unique stories,” she began. “For example, I am the first generation in my family to attend and graduate with a four-year degree.” (Her major? Food & Beverage Entrepreneurship.)

COVID-19 robbed Adalis and her peers of a proper high school graduation. “This may be our first time crossing a stage to receive our diplomas,” she noted. “Today, as we don our caps and gowns, it is crucial to recognize the unique bond that unites us; our journey has been marked by challenges, uncertainties, and the undeniable impact of COVID-19.”

Learning to Adapt and Thrive as a Community

The pandemic also disrupted their first years at JWU but that, too, marked an opportunity for them to adapt and thrive. Adalis and her peers developed new skills — resilience, adaptability, and tenacity — “that will serve us well in any endeavor.”

Those adversity-sharpened skills would serve Adalis in good stead when, in her junior year, her family was tested by a series of losses. “My great-grandmother, grandfather, and my grandmother passed in less than one semester,” she told the crowd. “I was at my lowest and ready to give up, but the constant support and encouragement I received from my peers, faculty, and the spirit of this school helped pick me up and push me forward to be here today.” She paused. “Being a part of the loving JWU family is what this university is all about.”

Calling her time at JWU “a gift,” Adalis concluded: “As we step into the next phase of our lives, let’s carry forward the lessons learned during this transformative period. Congratulations, Class of 2024 — WE DID IT!”

“This is not a road map to a destination, but a directional compass.” Michael Smith '24 Hon.

Michael Smith '24 Hon. at the Charlotte Commencement podium.
Michael Smith '24 Hon. speaking at the 2024 Charlotte Commencement ceremony.

How to Follow Your Passions

Keynote speaker Michael Smith '24 Hon. has been the president and CEO of Charlotte City Center Partners, an economic and community development organization, for 18 years. Chancellor Mim Runey framed his work at the intersection of “urban design, the science of place-making, industry and job development, and transportation systems while listening to the input of diverse communities.” She also praised his purpose-driven and passionate leadership.

Smith asked the Class of 2024 to follow their passions — and to back it up with strategic thinking: “As we celebrate this momentous occasion, let me share my strategy for happiness and fulfillment. Relentlessly pursue opportunities that lie at the intersection of your passions, your strengths, and what the world needs.”

He explained that pure passion alone is not enough, and that success will find us when we “recognize and harness” our innate strengths that set us apart.

“Finally, you must find the intersection of your passions and talents with what the world needs,” Smith explained. “By pursuing opportunities at this intersection, you can find fulfillment and purpose and create real value for the world.” Smith noted that his own path was not a linear one, but the setbacks became learning opportunities. “This is not a road map to a destination, but a directional compass.”

He asked the Class of 2024 to lean on the power of the JWU community: “Your time here has shown you the power of collaboration, mentorship, and support. Reach out to your classmates, stay in touch with your professors, and tap into the amazing alumni network for their wisdom and encouragement will guide you through both triumphs and tribulations.”

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Charlotte Campus President Richard Mathieu congratulates a new graduate.

Taking a group grad selfie at Charlotte Commencement.

Jubilant grads at 2024 JWU Charlotte Commencement.

Alijah Jameson '24 poses with his mother at Charlotte Commencement.