Students at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Southeast Arkansas College graduated Friday and speakers at both events encouraged them to decide what they want to do with their lives.

Find your why? That was the charge given to University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff graduates during Friday’s fall commencement at the Kenneth L. Johnson, Sr. Health, Physical Education and Recreation Department Complex. Commencement speaker Terrence Roberts, one of the Little Rock Nine, asked students to figure out their role in life and what mark they planned to leave behind.

“For what purpose are you alive?” said Roberts. “For what reason did you leave the womb and join this drama we call life?”

On Sept. 23, 1957, Roberts along with eight other black students were the first to attend classes at Little Rock Central High School located in Little Rock, Arkansas. They were met with a mob of people who were against the idea of desegregation thus causing Dwight D. Eisenhower, president at the time, to send U.S. Army Troops to accompany them for protection. Despite the troops' presence on-campus, the Little Rock Nine still experienced threats and violence from students and outsiders. For their heroism and bravery, members of the Little Rock Nine were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal—the highest civilian award in the United States—- in 1999 by former president Bill Clinton.

“You never know what you’re getting into and I certainly didn’t know what I was stepping into in Little Rock,” said Roberts. “I quickly found out. I was shocked and amazed that things were established the way they were established and I didn’t understand how those who had preceded me in life allowed it to happen. It was immoral, unreasonable, illegal, (and) unnatural.”

During his speech, Roberts also urged graduates to know their history by remembering those who paved a way for them noting Pine Bluff’s very own, Wylie Branton Sr. as one of them. According to Roberts, Branton offered legal counsel to the Little Rock Nine, which is how the two came to know one another.

“You stand on the shoulders of those who came before you,” Roberts said. “I, too, stand on the shoulders of those who came before me (and) included among that group is Wylie Branton Sr. and others like him. And it’s important to recognize that historical pathway.”

Offering student reflections, Mark Robinson, an industrial technology graduate shared his story including adversities he faced while on the road to obtain his degree.

“… We all want the same thing in life and that’s to be successful in our own respect,” he said. “To my fellow graduates, I say to you from my own personal experience that for you to be successful you must always remain motivated and you must always know that you can beat the odds.”

Robinson’s parents, Shenell and Kevin Hill traveled from St. Louis, Missouri to see their son graduate. Kevin, who was mentioned in his speech, said Mark’s milestone of graduating sets a positive example for his three younger brothers.

“He’s a good role model for his brothers,” said Kevin Hill.

Robinson was one of 176 graduates who received their diploma, according to the event’s program. UAPB Chancellor Laurence Alexander encouraged students to seize the day as it was now their time to leave the university and as he calls it make the nation roar. He also insisted that they cherish the day.

“You made it,” said Alexander. “To get here, you had to overcome some obstacles (and) some challenges that you may have faced, but you kept on going. As you are aware, the race is not given to the swift nor the strong, but to those who endure until the end and you have made it until the end and this is your testimony.”

Graduating with the highest honors of her graduating class, Makayla Cowles says she plans to pursue graduate school in an effort to get a degree in applied math. She graduated with a 3.97 grade point average in mathematics. While studying hard, she also spent her time at the university as a student athlete in soccer.

“I’ve been here for four and a half years and it’s exciting because all of the hard work—- crying over classes and just the stress involved to,” she said. “It’s just really relieving knowing that I finally made it to this point. Now, I can work to the next step in my life (after) completing this first step.”

A mass communication graduate, Jason Matthews plans to stay around locally with the hopes of getting a job in sports broadcasting. Looking back on his time as a student, Matthews says UAPB has prepared him for the future.

“I feel overly excited and thankful…” said Matthews about obtaining his degree. “It’s just amazing that I had the opportunity to come to college and have welcome arms, welcome me here.”

Similar to Cowles, Ashleigh Tate plans to further her education by attending graduate school and getting a degree in urban education.

“I’m really excited,” said Tate, an English major. “I’ve really been working hard for this and I can’t wait to teach kids in the future.”

Tate says her time at UAPB was invaluable and she ended her time at the university with no regrets.

“My journey was special,” she said. “I came eager, bushy-tailed, and very eager to get involved on-campus to make my mark and I did that. And I’m excited that I did everything I wanted to do and now it’s time to go.”

Southeast Arkansas College students were told to use their education to improve their lives and those of other people at a commencement ceremony Friday at the Pine Bluff Convention Center.

College President Stephen Hilterbran, who will retire Dec. 31, and has been in his current post since 2011, welcomed students and their families to the ceremony He will finish a career in education that began in 1972 at the end of the month.

“I am glad to have 137 students graduating this fall,” Hilterbran said. “We have 74 of those students here walking tonight. I hope the rest are out working. That’s what we try to do: give them some education and skills so they can meet their goals and meet their needs.”

“We are awarding 220 technical certificates of proficiency and associates degrees,” Hilterbran said. “In addition, we are recognizing 13 students who are receiving their Arkansas high school diplomas. All of these awards are extremely significant achievements and signify a milestone of hard work and dedication. I want to personally extend my congratulations to each and every one of you.”

Hilterbran introduced Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington who gave the keynote address. A retired educator of 38 years, Washington and her siblings grew up on a cotton farm in the rural community of Gethsemane. Her parents taught that church and school were their children’s passports from a life of field labor to a life of success as skilled professionals.

“While her parents toiled to make a living on their family’s small cotton farm, they stressed the importance of hard work and the value of education,” Hilterbran said.

Washington congratulated the college graduates, calling herself honored to be their speaker.

“The irony of commencement is it occurs at the end of your studies,” Washington said. “The word commence means start. It means begin, launch or to initiate. This day marks the successful conclusion of your studies and preparation process. Today your life begins anew as a better equipped productive member of society.”

Washington looked into the crowd, noting spouses, parents, siblings, grandparents and friends of the graduates. They offered support to enable the graduates to reach their goals, Washington said.

“We want each of you to remember to pay forward and become the supporter for the next one who is striving to secure their future through academics,” Washington said. “I want each one of you to know that you can make a difference. A lot of people say you can do more when you know important people. There is one important person you need to get to know. You are the most important person in your life. Knowing who you are and where you want to go will help you make a deliberate difference, a positive difference, in this world.”

“You must believe that although you are one person with one voice with one idea and with one vote, you can still be the one voice of reason that will change the course of things,” Washington said.

College Vice President for Student Affairs Scott Kuttenkuler thanked Hilterbran for his leadership at the college.