Charlotte School of Law students graduated Saturday, after winding down their final exams.
The class of 2017 celebrated their grit and tenacity, not just for learning all the ins-and-outs of how to advocate for future clients, but for advocating for themselves as the school's future is uncertain.
Chelsea Bauer doesn't want to talk about federal loans, ABA probation, admission policies - not on graduation day. This is a time to celebrate.
"I'm feeling amazing. It's been a long three years and it's a big day. I can't stop crying, to be honest. I didn't think I'd really get here," says Bauer excitedly.
Many of her classmates didn't, after the department of education yanked the school's federal loan money in December. That was partly due to accepting too many unqualified students. Some just didn't return, some transferred to other schools, losing a lot of their credits in the process. This graduating class now numbers 110, at least half of what it was expected to be.
"It's been rough and, for those of us who stayed, we all stayed for different reasons and we all made it here today and we're proud," says Bauer.
Without federal loan money, Bauer says she made ends meet by doing some part-time legal work and now has a job locked-in with that firm.
But the last five months have been much tougher on many other students, like David Wyatt. He had to rely on a food bank professors set up at the school.
"I made ends meet, but if it wasn't for Professor Scott Sigman, we wouldn't have any food. I mean, there would be times I wouldn't have any food," says Wyatt.
He had a place to live, but he couldn't pay the rent. His landlord took pity on him and allowed him to stay. This semester's federal loan money finally came through this week for many students. They weren't even sure they'd get that. Now Wyatt is all paid up with his landlord.
"He was nice enough that I didn't have to pay no late fees or things like that. I can't believe it. I know it's crazy," says Wyatt.
He's not mad anymore. Wyatt just wants to pass the bar and find a job.
This day also marks the end of a struggle for the families who supported these students. April Archie is here to celebrate with her sister Monica. She says family and church were a great support-system for her sister.
"We did what we had to do from raising funds community-wise, doing carwashes and all kinds of stuff, just to make sure we can get her through. So, she got through. That's a big deal," says Archie.
Inside, it's a packed crowd at Ovens Auditorium and an excited one. None of the speakers explicitly mention the problems the school has brought on itself. The focus is on the students.
"This graduating class is, unequivocally, the most tenacious, dedicated, and unwavering group of individuals I dare to ever graduate from Charlotte School of Law," Octavia Cannedy tells her fellow graduates.
The keynote speaker is Superior Court Judge Jesse Caldwell. He's also an adjunct professor at the school. He tells them he's proud.
"Your resiliency and your resourcefulness on your journey in conquering every challenge has been so inspirational to me and to countless others and those that love you and to people who don't even know," says Caldwell.
Alumni association president Lee Robertson goes for a laugh and gets one, telling them they've learned many things.
"Most importantly you've learned the question that all lawyers ask every day, 'Where is the money?'"
Notably absent is the school's president. Students didn't want him here. While there's clearly anger with the
school's administration, most hold their professors in high regard. A few students hug several professors, as they collect their degrees.
Afterward, graduates get hugs from family and pose for photos. Daniel Rufty is surrounded by his parents, wife, and kids. He had to sell a car and an RV to get through the semester and he says he's still waiting on a loan through the school.
"I feel pretty good. It's pretty sobering. It's surreal at the same time. There's a lot of work ahead and a lot of work is in the past too," says Rufty.
They'll begin studying for the bar this week. The school's low bar passage rate the past several years is one of the reason's the school came under scrutiny. In February, it was an all-time low for first-time test-takers at 25 percent.
One professor who came to support his students talked to me about the advice he's been giving, but he didn't want to be recorded. It's not the stuff of graduation speeches. He tells students, 'It's going to be hard, but if you pass the bar and get a job interview, you'll be fine. You can point to your success, in spite of Charlotte School of Law and, oh yeah, don't dismiss the idea of suing your alma mater.'