South Celebrates Spring and Summer Graduates

Posted on May 6, 2023
Thomas Becnel

Inventor and entrepreneur Lonnie Johnson, left, and University of South Alabama head football Coach Kane Wommack addressed USA graduates during ceremonies at the Mitchell Center. Nearly 2,100 spring and summer graduates were recognized.  data-lightbox='featured'
Inventor and entrepreneur Lonnie Johnson, left, and University of South Alabama head football Coach Kane Wommack addressed USA graduates during ceremonies at the Mitchell Center. Nearly 2,100 spring and summer graduates were recognized.

Commencement speakers challenged University of South Alabama graduates to embrace their education, solve problems and remain persistent.

Nearly 2,100 spring and summer graduates receiving bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees were recognized during Friday and Saturday ceremonies at the USA Mitchell Center.  

Lonnie Johnson, the Friday speaker, is a native of Mobile who became a NASA engineer and entrepreneur best known as the inventor of the Super Soaker water toy. He warned that people must always be wise enough to control the great power of modern technology.

“Don’t burn or hide your books,” Johnson told graduates. “If you do, your computers are going to know more than you. The human brain is the ultimate tool. Everyone has one. What you do with it is up to you.”

Kane Wommack, the Saturday speaker, is head coach of the South football team, which excited fans with a 10-3 season and trip to a bowl game last year. He told graduates that perspective and perseverance will help them succeed.

“Just work, just go to work,” Wommack said. “You will rarely be 100 percent in life. That’s the truth. Just work. Perseverance with relentless detail and consistency will wear adversity down. If it were easy, everyone would do it. Ease is a greater threat to progress than hardship. That is a different perspective.”

President Jo Bonner thanked South graduates and their families for helping the University celebrate its 60th Anniversary.

Earlier Friday, he announced that South supporter Abraham “Abe” Mitchell had pledged $20 million for a new performing arts center on campus. He told medical graduates that next year construction will begin on a new building for the Frederick P. Whiddon College of Medicine.

“Now, I know a lot of you are thinking, ‘Why didn’t I get to go to medical school in that new building?’” Bonner joked. “Well, you’ll all get a chance to donate to it, so look at it that way.”

The president offered congratulations to all of the 2023 graduates.

“It’s OK to hold your head a little higher and walk with a little more confidence,” Bonner said. “This is a really big day in your life, and in the life of your University.”

Hundreds of South graduates took pictures with their families at the Moulton Bell Tower and the statue of SouthPaw, the school mascot. Many students decorated their graduation caps with personalized messages.

“Nurse Emily.” “One Degree Hotter.” “Gotta Go My Own Way.”

Megan Grace-Haynes, who pursued a master’s degree in nursing, wore a cap that said, “I almost gave up, but I remembered who was watching,” with a photo of her grandfather, Caleb Grace.

“Before he passed, he would always ask me, ‘Grace, when are you going to get your master’s degree?’” she said. “He was a math professor at Meridian Community College.  He was military, retired from the Air Force National Guard. And he helped me keep going to get my degree.”

Srotter Pakhamma wore a Laotian ceremonial sash atop his graduation robe. He’s a first-generation college student from an immigrant family who studied mechanical engineering.

After an internship at a chemical plant, Pakhamma has accepted a job with Airbus in Mobile. He’ll be working on the final assembly line as a process performance engineer.

“I wanted to work hands-on,” he said. “I can’t do a full-time desk job, that’s for sure.”

Micah Cook plans to stay in Mobile and teach or work for an engineering firm. The Gulf Coast has been an important part of his graduate education in marine science.

“I enjoyed working out at Dauphin Island Sea Lab,” Cook said. “I enjoyed the field work and getting out on the water. It’s been a fun ride.”

On Friday, Johnson started his commencement speech with an engineering joke that drew laughs from the audience.

A doctor, lawyer and engineer are facing the guillotine. When the doctor is about to be executed, the machine jams and the blade stops just short his neck. He is spared. The lawyer goes up, the blade again stops, and he too is spared. Then it’s the engineer’s turn.

“Hey, wait a minute,” he says. “I think I can fix this thing.”

Johnson told graduates that, in an ever-changing technological world, it’s important for people to stick together. 

“Don’t leave anyone behind,” he said. “Straight people, gay people. Black people, white people. Skinny, fat, tall. We come in all shapes and sizes. God made everybody.” 

Johnson holds more than 140 patents, and he talked about the incredible advances in technology that drive automation and artificial intelligence. Those things will require people to be flexible, adaptable and willing to change. He’s optimistic about the years to come.

“Humans are built to move forward,” he said. “We’re problem solvers. We’re fixers of things. I wish I were younger. I wish I could experience this future with you.”

Wommack also joked with the class of 2023. He told them that he approached his Commencement speech with the same urgency and fervor they once brought to term papers and final exams.

“So late last night I began,” he said, as everyone laughed. “My quest started with a Google search and a 5-hour Energy shot. Washed down with a few Red Bulls, then I distracted myself on Instagram for two hours. Like many of you, I found my greatest nuggets of wisdom on YouTube and Wikipedia.”

Wommack encouraged graduates to respond to challenges with a growth mindset, rather than a fixed one. 

“Perspective gives you the ability to reshape your mind in the midst of adversity to accomplish the task at hand, but perspective will only get you halfway to accomplishing your goals,” he said. “Perseverance will give you the ability to see the work through no matter what the obstacle.”

 “Keep your J’s up,” he closed, “because here in Mobile and the University of South Alabama, we’re so very proud of you,” he said. “We can’t wait to see what you’ll do next. Congratulations, graduates, and go Jags!”

View Commencement photos on Facebook and Instagram.

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