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UNCC Graduation Kicks Off Busy Stretch Of Appearances For Aiken

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Clay Aiken may not be the American idol, but he is a college graduate. He also likes to skate for charity and sing at hockey games.

Aiken, who vaulted this year from college-student obscurity to pop music stardom as a runner-up on the television show "American Idol," graduated Saturday from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The event kicked off a busy weekend for Aiken, who will sing at Monday's Carolina Hurricanes NHL game in Raleigh.

Sunday, Aiken participated in a charity event called "Skate With Clay," in which he took to the ice at the RBC Center in Raleigh with children, many of whom were disabled.

"Skate with Clay" led into a Sunday news conference to announce a partnership between the Hurricanes' Kids N' Community Foundation and Aiken's charity, the Bubel Aiken Foundation.

Monday at noon, Aiken will join Bill and Sheri from the Mix 101.5 morning radio show at Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh. Monday night, Aiken will sing the national anthem prior to the Hurricanes' game against the Dallas Stars.

In addition to the national anthem, he will perform a song from his double platinum-selling "Measure of a Man" album during the game's first intermission.

In addition, exclusive Aiken autographed merchandise will be available at auction during the game at the Kids N' Community Foundation kiosk.

His excitement about graduating indicated that perhaps that was the biggest event of the weekend for him.

Aiken received a bachelor of arts degree in special education from UNCC's College of Education during an afternoon ceremony at the school's Halton Arena. It was one of two commencement sessions Saturday for students who completed work toward a degree in August or December.

"American Idol" has made Aiken a multi-platinum recording sensation, famous and wealthy beyond expectation. But at Saturday's graduation, he simply was a face in the crowd.

Seated among a mass of black-robed graduates, he was recognizable only because of his height and the distinctive spiked hair that poked from beneath his mortarboard.

Aiken's name was not mentioned during the ceremony until he walked across the stage, the very last of 593 degree recipients who walked in the ceremony. He was listed as "Clayton Aiken ... Raleigh" on the 31st page of the commencement program.

Flashbulbs popped throughout the arena as Aiken approached the stage. There was applause, mixed with some boos, as his name was announced.

Chancellor James Woodward then called Aiken to the stage.

"One among you has received a bit more attention, and he would like to speak to his class," Woodward told the audience as Aiken stepped to the microphone and spoke hurriedly.

"This has been an amazing year for me," he said. "This is more special to me than a lot of the things that have happened to me this year, because what happens here today says something to people. This is a day that makes for all of us a statement ... how important it is to persevere and continue to work and strive to succeed."

"Thank you for letting me be a part of this day. Congratulations and God bless. Thank you so much."

Some hecklers yelled at Aiken during his brief speech. But they were drowned out by loud applause as he finished his remarks.

Aiken's decision to attend the ceremony stirred controversy on the UNCC campus, where officials announced last month that they would print tickets and limit graduates to 7 guests each for the afternoon session in which Aiken would graduate.

Some students complained that relatives and friends had already made plans to travel long distances for the ceremony, and now would not be able to attend. Hundreds of students signed a petition asking administrators to consider moving the ceremony to a larger venue or scheduling a third ceremony.

The ticket crackdown appeared to scare away curiosity-seekers and Clay-maniacs, and administrators were able to release several hundred extra tickets at the last minute, accommodating graduates who needed extra seats.

The arena was only about two-thirds full for the ceremony.

Mary Dukes of Saluda, S.C., was in a party of about 20 people who watched her daughter, Kim Dukes, receive her communications degree. She had been bothered by the initial announcement that tickets would be limited.

"I think they should have let everybody come that wanted to come," she said. "They shouldn't make special accommodations for someone just because he's a celebrity."

Brian Eaves, 22, of Charlotte, waited to meet his family in a concourse after the ceremony. Eaves, a sociology graduate, said he was able to get 11 tickets for the ceremony, and said he thought Aiken's role in the ceremony was appropriate.

"It was nice seeing him get up there and give his little speech," Eaves said. "It was too bad some people booed."

At a news conference after the ceremony, Aiken and others announced several initiatives by the

Bubel Aiken Foundation,

a charitable organization started this summer to help disabled children. Aiken was a mentor to Mike Bubel, a teenager with autism, while Aiken studied at UNCC.

Wachovia and MBNA are to offer a Bubel Aiken Foundation credit card. The foundation also announced partnerships with Krispy Kreme, the President's Volunteer Service Award program and Youth Service America.

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