Simmons and Caldwell Receive Honorary Degrees at A-B Tech Commencement

Six graduates in caps and gowns at commencement.
May 24, 2017
Tech Talk

More than 1,000 degrees and diplomas were awarded during the A-B Tech Commencement ceremonies May 13 in the U.S. Cellular Center, including two honorary degrees for an Asheville civil rights leaders and a long-time college employee.

This year's commencement also marked the first graduating class for five new two-year degree programs that began in Fall 2015: Aviation, including degrees in Aviation Management and Career Pilot Technology; Air Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration (HVAC); Environmental Engineering Technology; Health and Fitness Science; and Associate in Engineering. 

Graduate Phillip Martin said he decided to pursue a degree in Health and Fitness Science after considering a career in nutrition. “This program combines physical fitness with healthy eating, and there is so much real-world experience by having my own clients as a personal trainer while in school,” he said.

A-B Tech President Dennis King and Board of Trustees Chair Joe Brumit presided over the ceremony where Oralene Simmons received an Honorary Associate of Applied Sciences Degree in Community Relations and Brinda Caldwell received an Honorary Associate of Applied Sciences Degree in Art and Decorative Management. Brumit also opened the program and performed the National Anthem as a duet with Digital Media Technology Instructor Jonathan Ross.

Simmons, a native of Mars Hill, was the first African American to integrate Mars Hill College in 1961 and became its first African-American graduate with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education in 1963.

She serves as president of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Association of Asheville and Buncombe County, and is the founder and chair of the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast. In recognition of her contributions, she was appointed by the governor to the state Martin Luther King, Jr. Commission and was presented with the Making of the King Holiday Award by Coretta Scott King in 1992. 

A retired employee of the city of Asheville, Simmons was named one of Asheville’s Living Treasures in 2015 and was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine in 2016. The Buncombe County Commission declared April 11, 2015 “Oralene Simmons Day” in recognition of her dedication to improve human dignity and equality in our community.

Caldwell was recognized this year for 35 years of dedicated service to A-B Tech. Hired in 1981 as administrative assistant to the Dean of Continuing Education she was promoted to the position of Director of Community Enrichment Programs in Continuing Education in 1983 and continues to serve in the role. 

Under Caldwell’s guidance, the department of Community Enrichment Programs has evolved to offer 350 to 400 courses and ranks as the largest Community Enrichment Program among North Carolina’s 58 community colleges.

UNC Asheville Chancellor Mary K. Grant delivered the keynote address. Having served for 12 years as President of her alma mater, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Dr. Grant joined UNC Asheville as its seventh chancellor in January 2015.   

Chancellor Grant has led the institution in the development of a 5-year strategic plan focused on student success, academic rigor, and community engagement. As Chancellor, Dr. Grant has supported important faculty initiatives, such as the creation of the STEAM studio, a state-of-the-art 12,000 square foot makers’ space in Asheville’s River Arts District, connecting the UNC Asheville campus to the creative community of Asheville. 

“I’m honored to have been invited to speak at A-B Tech’s Commencement,” said Dr. Grant. “It is a time to celebrate and recognize the graduates along with their families, friends, and the faculty and staff as we recognize the important accomplishments of the individuals and our community college partner.”

Four employees were also honored for annual awards during the ceremony:  

  • Dr. Russ Palmeri, who has taught biology at A-B Tech since 2003, was selected as Faculty Member of the Year. He earned a doctor of medicine from Georgetown University Medical School and was an obstetrics and gynecology resident at Georgetown University Hospital, where he was named Administrative Chief Resident. 
  • Michelle Payton, Adjunct Faculty Member of the Year, teaches Communications, Transfer Success, and Developmental Reading and English studies. She earned a bachelor of arts from the University of Cincinnati and master of arts in Rhetoric and Composition from Western Carolina University.
  • R. J. Corman, Staff Member of the Year, is the Dean of Business and Hospitality Division. He received an associate degree in aviation management and career pilot technology from Lenoir Community College and earned a commercial pilot's license and flight instructor license in 2002. He also has a bachelor's degree in aerospace from Middle Tennessee State University, an MBA from the University of North Carolina, and is pursuing a doctorate from Western Carolina University. Corman also was a flight instructor for WNC Aviation and flew for American Airlines.
  • Eric Cox, Continuing Education Instructor of the Year, teaches Culinary at the ABCCM Veteran’s Restoration Quarters, where his students are veterans in transition who have faced significant challenges following service to their country. He earned an associate degree in Culinary Arts from A-B Tech and is a certified proctor and instructor in ServSafe Sanitation.

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