HUNTINGTON - Where they had come from was as varied as where they were headed next.

But one common thread will bind them wherever they wind up, woven through the collective experiences and accolades that have cast them sons and daughters of Marshall.

With its 182nd commencement Saturday morning and afternoon, Marshall University conferred degrees on 1,524 students - 1,076 undergraduate and 448 graduate - each with their own stories to tell.

Marshall was a homecoming moment for Meredith O'Bara, a Parkersburg, West Virginia, native who spent a year out of high school traveling the United States as a missionary.

"I just wanted to come back to a community where I had people that loved me and that I loved," she said, surrounded by the rest of the graduating class from the College of Arts and Media.

But O'Bara's road back to West Virginia ultimately leads back out again. With a bachelor's degree in public relations now in hand, she's already lined up a job with a nonprofit organization in Minnesota - well in line with a goal of helping others in her career as in her life.

For Matthew Belcher and Lakeyn Morris, it's been a journey side by side from their hometown of Bluefield, West Virginia.

The couple of nearly six years followed each other to Huntington to pursue bachelor's degrees in pre-med biology, and both have been accepted to the master's program at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

"It's just been learning how to overcome failure, pick yourself back up and head on," Belcher said.

"Learning to overcome was important," Morris added. "It's not been an easy path at all."

Though Gabriel King was granted his doctorate of education and leadership studies, it's right back to school on Monday. King, the 29-year-old principal of South Charleston High School, spoke of cultivating himself as a lifelong learner, reflecting the philosophy that public schools instill in their students.

It's been a test of endurance and grit, spanning back to the online master's program he completed while teaching in Lincoln County years earlier.

"I'm just all in; anything I do, I just want to be the best I can possibly be," King said. "If I'm going to lead an organization of over 1,000 people and hopefully work at upper levels of educational administration, I'm going to need that knowledge."

For Mark Williams, the majority of adversity was overcome outside the classroom. The 38-year-old Ashland native graduated with a bachelor's degree in online journalism after a "brief 20-year delay," a flurry of personal challenges conquered, and with stops at the University of Kentucky and UNC Asheville before returning home to Marshall, leaving and then coming back to school in 2017.

"It's been a lot of bad decisions followed by good decisions," Williams laughed. "I've been through a whole lot in my time, but I've finished something that I've started, and that was a tough one."

He'll continuing working full time at a Huntington machine shop for now, along with making electronic music, while casting his resume out there.

And while it's clearly broadened his horizons, it's just as sweet for his mother and family who watched him finally cross the stage.

"They've been waiting for this a long time - longer than I have," Williams said.

This is the first year Marshall has split graduation into two ceremonies based on colleges. Although the university has hosted two separate ceremonies in the past, this year's events were organized differently and included degree conferral for all levels of education at two separate ceremonies.

Susan Hellems Lavenski, a two-time graduate and CEO of Charleston-based public relations firm Charles Ryan Associates, delivered the commencement address.


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