Staff Photos: Jason Braverman. Georgia Gwinnett College graduate Ramona Pataca receives her diploma from Gov. Nathan Deal, who gave the commencement address at Thursday's graduation on the Lawrenceville campus.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Jonelle Faal said she could not be more proud to be a part of "the most inspiring group of students to ever graduate from GGC."
On a sultry Thursday afternoon, 95 students received their bachelor's degrees from the 5-year-old Georgia Gwinnett College. President Daniel Kaufman said many of the students were "pure GGC graduates" -- those who were among the college's first freshman class admitted in August 2007.
"You 95 students have been more than just students," Kaufman said. "You've been partners in this extraordinary endeavor. ... You've made us proud since the first day you arrived on campus."
Faal, one of the graduates and a former president of GGC's Student Government Association, told her cohorts that they helped transform an innovative vision into the successful college it is today and are leaving a legacy of growth behind.
When the graduates first arrived on campus, it only had four academic programs and half the number of buildings that currently exist. The college had not yet been accredited, and it had no mascot.
"Just as this campus was a blank slate when we arrived, so, too, is your future," Faal said during Thursday's commencement ceremony.
Through their years at Georgia Gwinnett, the students have selected and named a mascot for the school, founded clubs and watched as student residence halls, a library and learning center and a student center were constructed. At the graduation ceremony, the students witnessed one more first for the college: the singing of the alma mater.
Brittany Dertz, a graduate, co-wrote the alma mater's lyrics in partnership with Alvina Atkinson, associate professor of mathematics. The tune was composed by Thomas Young, retired associate professor of English.
Dertz said she and Atkinson used the college's mission and vision statements for inspiration, spending about five hours on the project.
"This is a huge honor," Dertz said. "What a great way to end my four-year college career at GGC. To be immortalized in this way, after all I've been through and experienced here in the college's first few years, is an excellent legacy for me to leave behind."
The graduates also became the first to march through the college's Arch of Knowledge, an architectural feature of the library and learning center.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, the ceremony's keynote speaker, told the students they did not earn their diplomas because of the roll of the dice or the luck of the draw. They did so through hard work and dedication.
The governor encouraged students not to let the fear of failure stop them from pursuing their dreams.
"It is said that Sir Winston Churchill once delivered a commencement address with these words: Never, never, never, never give up," Deal said. "If there was ever an occasion for a short commencement speech, it is probably today on this beautiful warm, Georgia afternoon."
Deal challenged the graduates "to live a life that lives big dreams, that values the truth, that values responsibility and a life that dares greatly."
"All that you need is within you," he said. "In the years ahead, commit yourself to cultivating the values within you. Never stop learning. Work hard every day, and, above all, never, never, never, never give up."
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