Pembroke University Celebrates 125 Years of Accomplishments, Growth - Higher Education
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Pembroke University Celebrates 125 Years of Accomplishments, Growth

by Eleanor Lee Yates

Dr. Kyle Carter, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, has some advice for university administrators with major milestones on the horizon. “Start very early,” he emphasized. Carter, who arrived at the campus as the new chancellor in July 2010, felt he had a late start for planning the university’s 125th anniversary, which kicked off in March. “Two years out is not sufficient time,” Carter says. “I was thinking three years would be enough, but now I think it should be five years out. However, everything we’ve had has been a home run.” Because of the historic significance in the community, university officials decided to kick off the observance on March 14 this year and extend the celebration for 14 months, concluding during commencement next spring. The slogan for the commemoration is “Honoring Our Heritage, Soaring Toward Our Future.”

UNC-Pembroke’s rich and storied history began in 1887 as the Croatan Normal School. It was originally an elementary school because education levels were low. The goal was to educate American Indians of Robeson County and train teachers for the public schools. The first four-year diploma was granted in 1940. UNC-Pembroke joined the new UNC university system in 1972.

The school is located in the home of the largest American Indian tribe east of the Mississippi, the Lumbee, which currently has a population of more than 55,000. From 1939 to 1953, Pembroke was the only state-supported, four-year college for American Indians in the nation. Today, UNC-Pembroke is one of the most diverse universities in the country, with more than 6,000 students. There are 41 undergraduate majors and 17 master’s degree programs. Although the percentage of American Indian students has declined through the years, the most recent figure shows an increase from 700 American Indians to approximately 1,000 today, officials say.

Historians point to a period of enrollment growth in 1953 when the university “self-integrated” and more Whites and Blacks attended. Student population also surged in 2000-2010, growing from 3,000 to 7,000. African-American enrollment increased, and Latino and Asian students began enrolling.

From 2001 to 2012, approximately $100 million was spent on new construction and renovations.

One of the long-lasting anniversary projects is the creation of the Southeast American Indian Studies (SEAIS) program. UNC-Pembroke aims to become the foremost research and scholarship university for Southeast American Indian studies, with an undergraduate major and minor. Fundraising for an endowed professorship of $1 million is underway. UNC-Pembroke already has a Native American Resource Center, which houses local and national history, artifacts and contemporary works by Indian artists.

A major participant in the community, UNC-Pembroke sponsors a powwow and also takes part in the annual Lumbee Homecoming. The university will host its 6th Annual Southeast Indian Studies Symposium next spring.

According to Scott Bigelow, UNC-Pembroke public communications specialist, one of the most popular events was a recent panel held during Homecoming called “Reflections: A Look Back at UNC Pembroke’s First 125 Years,” which featured a lecture by Dr. Linda Oxendine, co-author of the university’s centennial history. A panel of elder statesmen and alumni from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s talked about their college experiences.

Remembering tradition, looking forward

All told, the 125th commemoration will be part of every event at UNC-P through May. Some new traditions include Lumbee Ambassadors dressed in regalia leading convocation and commencement processions. An honor drum song now opens programs along with the national anthem.

University officials say that UNC-Pembroke graduates more American Indian students with four-year degrees than any school east of the Mississippi and ranks in the top ten nationally. It graduates more American Indian science majors than any university in the nation. These students become doctors, physician assistants, pharmacists and physical therapists. Many doctors have returned to the area to practice medicine.

Undergraduate research has also increased. For example, Dr. Ben Bahr, a neurobiologist and Alzheimer’s researcher, is performing research on compounds that prevent and reverse neurodegenerative diseases. He involves undergraduates as well as post-doctoral students from Duke and other universities.

The commemoration is a source of pride in the community and at the university.

Lawrence Locklear, the university’s webmaster, serves as co-chair of 125th committee. His grandfather, Issac Brayboy, was on the university’s first board of trustees.

“Hearing these stories and personal experiences [has] been a wonderful experience,” he says. “It has also been great to showcase the accomplishments of faculty, staff and alumni.” He also notes that embracing the past served to guide the university’s future.

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