CHARLESTON -- The traditional congratulations and well-wishes of Eastern Illinois University's fall commencement ceremony Saturday included some extra emotions for one graduating student.
Whitney Alexander took her turn following others onto the Lantz Arena stage to receive her diploma, but her arrival featured more than the announcement of her name and handshakes with university officials.
Announcer Matt Piescinski had Alexander pause, then told her and the audience why.
"Ladies and gentlemen, Whitney’s brother, Private First Class Jordan McNeal of the United States Army, is joining us today to celebrate his sister’s graduation from Eastern Illinois University and assist in presenting her degree to her," he said.
Alexander, obviously surprised and understandably emotional, then hugged her brother, who took her diploma for her degree in family and consumer science from EIU President David Glassman and handed it to his sister.
The surprise was possible for the Kankakee resident and her family because McNeal was able to get an early leave from his duties in Europe to see his sister become the first member of their family to graduate from college.
Meanwhile, the more traditional features of Saturday's commencement included comments by featured speaker Judy Ethell, a 1982 EIU graduate whose career included being a partner at the Price Waterhouse Coopers firm and who's now a consultant for an investment company.
Also an accomplished equestrian, Ethell said that and her work success are examples of what the graduates can achieve.
"Set a goal today," she said. "You can make a tremendous difference."
Ethell urged the graduates to include volunteer work in their plans, saying they'll benefit from the contacts they'll make as well as help a cause they support.
"You will have more friends than you can imagine," she said. "You will be rewarded and make a difference to people you know and people you don't know."
Student speakers during Saturday's two commencement ceremonies -- one in the morning and another in the afternoon -- were chosen based on academic success, an essay and faculty mentorship.
Charles Legrand, the morning's speaker who received his master's degree in gerontology, told of generations of his family who attended the university, frequently using the phrase "we are EIU" to describe them and his fellow students.
He said his grandparents and his mother were all music teachers and told of how supportive his community was when his mother died, making him realize how someone can enhance the lives of others.
"What is your legacy for the next generation?" Legrand said. "We are and always will be EIU."