Retiring English professor Cathy Sepko told the approximately 180 members of North Greenville University’s 2016 December graduating class on Dec. 9 that, no matter how bleak their past has been, they should learn from it and look to the future.
Sepko, known by her students as a storyteller, explained to the graduates just why she loves to tell stories.
“I tell stories because it makes sense of things that happened in the past, or happened in the present, or happened in the future,” said Sepko. “Learn from the past, live in the present, but always look to the future. We cannot change the past, we can only learn from it.”
On this occasion, Sepko told a personal story of the Christmas her father passed away. He was hospitalized for cancer he developed at the age of 37 while working for the Appalachian Power Company.
Being from a small mining town in West Virginia, her parents had to travel to the University of Virginia Hospital for treatment. The two families they came in contact with during their visit made an impact on Sepko’s life. The landlord who rented them a small attic room in her home to stay while visiting the hospital treated them as unwanted guests. A second lady, Mrs. Rivers, that they met at the hospital took Sepko to her home to spend Christmas with her family. They clothed her and fed her.
For the rest of her life, Sepko remembered and compared those two days. One family didn’t offer her a cookie; the other was “Jesus with skin on.”
“I hope this is a message that you will always remember,” Sepko said to the graduates. “We are meant to be Jesus with skin on.”
Sepko has battled her own cancer for the past eight years.
“I was once taught that every day is a gift. That is why it is called the present. What a special gift for you today. You’re alive, you’re young, and you’re graduating college,” she said.
“No matter how bleak you feel your future may be, how sad your past has been, and on days when you don’t know what to do, never give up,” Sepko said
Sepko said the Bible tells us that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
“As I reflect on my retirement and leaving NGU with you,” she said to the graduates. “Jesus reminded His disciples at the end of His ministry on earth of some very important things: Love God and love all others as you love yourselves. He told them the Holy Spirit would be there to teach them, comfort them, and strengthen them. Just as He will for you, graduates.”
Sepko’s never forgotten Mrs. Rivers. She even wrote a memoir to have published in the Charlottesville, Va., paper to try to locate her. She thinks of her every Christmas Eve and is thankful for her example. After searching many years, she finally was able to locate Rivers and express her gratitude for being the reason she never lost hope in God and His people.
“I am so thankful for the encouragement of the Holy Spirit to find her. I encourage you, if the Holy Spirit inspires you to call someone, don’t hesitate to thank them for where you are today.”
Sepko taught Advanced Grammar at NGU for many years.
“I tried to tell my students that when you go into an interview and they ask, ‘How are you doing?’ you do not say, ‘Pretty good.’ ‘Doing’ is an action verb and requires an adverb. From this day forward, you can be ‘doing well,’” said Sepko.
“Jesus went about doing good. He was the one who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, healed the sick, and provided sheltered for those who needed shelter. What I pray for you is that all your life, you are able to do both. That you will do well and you will always do good. You will always represent the God you serve and you will always represent NGU,” she said.
She concluded by saying what “NGU” represents to her and her husband: “Never Give Up.”
Sepko, who has served as a professor of English at NGU since 1996, has held various faculty positions, including dean of the College of Humanities, faculty chair, and faculty marshal, during her time at NGU.
Sepko has also been directly involved in the creation of a number of degree programs, academic departments, and several courses, such as Advanced Grammar and Style, American Folklore, Literature Theory, Appalachian Literature, and Honors Program seminars.
She has received a variety of teaching honors, including the South Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities Excellence in Teaching Award.
Prior to NGU, Sepko served as the director of Christian Education and Youth in West Virginia for four years, an adjunct English instructor at West Virginia State University for three years, and a secondary education teacher for 17 years.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in English language arts education at West Virginia Tech, a master’s in English and mass communication at Marshall University, and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction/English education at Clemson University.
Sepko enjoys genealogical and folklore research, writing memoirs, and spending time with her grandchildren. Active in her church, she has taught both Sunday school and women’s Bible studies. She is beloved by her current and past students, as well as her colleagues.
She and her husband, Ken, have a son and a daughter-in-law, Micah and Katie Sepko, who are both employees at NGU. They also have a foster son who resides in West Virginia.
At the conclusion of Sepko’s address, the university awarded her an honorary Doctor of Christian Leadership degree.
This December commencement ceremony was historic. The school awarded a record total of approximately 180 degrees from its undergraduate, online undergraduate, and graduate programs.