Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 12, 2012

By Hugh Fisher
SALISBURY — In her commencement address, actress and 2002 Catawba College graduate Jasika Pruitt challenged this year’s graduates to write the stories of their lives.
Many know Pruitt, a native of Alabama, as Astrid Farnsworth on the Fox TV series “Fringe,” which has just been renewed for a fifth and final season.
At her own graduation day, Pruitt said she recalled feeling disconnected.
And the months that followed were difficult, as she struggled to achieve her dream of acting on stage in New York.
“I survived on peanut butter and Wendy’s dollar menu for a really long time,” Pruitt said.
Since then, she has become a successful actress on stage and screen, as well as a published illustrator.
“It turns out that my story isn’t one trajectory at all. It has highs, it has lows and then it reverses and it revisits places it has been in earlier years,” Pruitt said.
“My hope for you, class of 2012, is that you embrace the responsibility of drafting your own stories … without losing sight of what makes you happy and gives you hope.”
With diplomas in hand, members of the Class of 2012 left the ceremony ready to take her advice.
Jennifer Bailey of Statesville already has quite a story to tell.
At age 13, she was struck by a car and lost a foot.
At her wedding, Bailey walked down the aisle with her father, both wearing black Converse All-Stars sneakers.
Then, last May, her father passed away.
Saturday, when she walked across the stage at Catawba, she was wearing those same sneakers in his honor.
“They’re my favorite black Chucks, and I wear ’em proud,” Bailey said.
After studying secondary education, she will be a student teacher at South Rowan High School this fall.
“I’ve actually thought about writing a book,” Bailey said. “College, school and everything has been one challenge after another.”
Her mother, Debbie McLain, said she was so proud of her daughter, after all that she has been through.
For Yakir Malul, of Israel, studying at Catawba meant learning a new language and forming a new family.
Malul was one of the students honored with the Whitener Medal, honoring one male and one female graduate who exemplify character, scholarship and leadership.
Malul, also the 2011-12 executive president of Catawba’s Student Government Association, told fellow graduates to view their class as a family.
“We join the thousands of others who keep Catawba in our hearts,” Malul said.
Fellow Whitener Medal recipient Claire Robinson is returning to her hometown of Houston, Texas, with a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater arts production and design.
“I have about two weeks off before the start of my next job,” Robinson said.
She’ll work at the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico, then at the Portland Stage in Maine.
Robinson, too, said she loves the metaphor of writing one’s own story.
And, she said, “If you’re actually writing creatively, you don’t know where your story is going to end up.”
“I’m personally trying to keep my eyes and ears open, see what opportunities are there and which ones really to pursue,” Robinson said.
At commencement, others were honored for their service to Catawba and community.
Dr. Joe Oxendine was recognized for his role as interim president.
Oxendine, a Catawba alumnus and former chancellor of UNC-Pembroke, was asked to take the post in March 2011.
His name also appears on the 2012 graduates’ diplomas.
Retiring professors Michael Baranski and Laurel Eason were also honored for their service.
One graduate in particular is hoping to mirror Pruitt’s accomplishments.
Jesse Siak, of Hendersonville, earned a theater education degree.
“I’d like to be an actor. That’s the dream,” Siak said.
Much like Pruitt, he plans to work for a time, save money and be able to support himself for a few months.
“And then, just start auditioning, auditioning, auditioning,” Siak said.
Despite all the woes you might expect to hear, about the economy and his chances, Siak’s family is behind him all the way.
“Here’s what we tell him: ‘Go for your dream while you’re young,’ ” Mary Cannon, Siak’s mother, said. ‘There’s always going to be a backup.’ ”
“You’re going to go out there and you’re going to fail,” Siak said, “but if you work hard at it, you’re going to have just as many successes.”
Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.