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Commencement 2017 celebrates service, unsung heroes

As has become the tradition for the graduating class, the 270th Commencement ceremony began with a procession that included all of those receiving degrees from the University, as well as members of the faculty and administration.

After everyone had been seated, Dean of Religious Life Alison Boden delivered the invocation. University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 spoke after Boden and focused his greeting on acknowledging the contributions of graduates, parents, staff, faculty members, and other members of the University community. He then introduced Grant Storey ’17, who gave the salutatory oration.

After the oration, Eisgruber returned to the stage to introduce Provost David Lee GS ’99, who awarded the prizes for secondary school teaching. He praised the extraordinary contributions each teacher has made to the future of society, and congratulated each teacher.

Dean of the College Jill Dolan then took the stage to recognize the graduates, beginning with those receiving undergraduate Bachelor of Arts degrees, and following with the Bachelor of Science in Engineering degrees. Dolan presented the students to Eisgruber, who awarded them their degrees.

“Our entire community is honored by your presence and graced by your legacy,” concluded Dolan, congratulating each graduate.

Eisgruber then introduced the Class of 2017 valedictorian, Jin Yun Chow ’17. Chow hails from Hong Kong, and was selected by the faculty as this year’s valedictorian. Chow focused on those who are not often recognized, narrating a story about Margaret Campbell, a staff member at the Tiger Tea Room. During her time at the new café in Firestone, Chow noticed that Campbell was reading a Kindle, and the two discussed her reading selections. Eventually, Campbell revealed that she was writing a book and had already written over 250 pages.

“I wondered how many interesting people I didn’t get to befriend over my four years here because I never gave them a chance to talk, and never gave myself a chance to listen,” Chow said.

She emphasized the importance of slowing down and recognizing the unsung heroes who are easily forgotten. The most meaningful interactions, Chow said, are often the ones that are unplanned. It is crucial to recognize their importance, and not brush them off in favor of seemingly more important things.

“I challenge us to be the salmon that swims downstream, taking the time to get to know and appreciate the people who surround us as we glide through the water,” Chow said.

Each unsung hero, Chow explained, deserves a place in the graduation ceremony today. She asked her classmates to give genuine human interactions a real chance to blossom, to learn the stories and names of the unsung heroes in each of their lives, and to be more generous with their time.

“Here’s to all of our heroes, known and unknown, sung and unsung, who got us through these four years,” Chow concluded.

Following Chow’s address, Eisgruber introduced Dean of the Graduate School Sanjeev Kulkarni, who awarded degrees to the candidates for advanced degrees.

Eisgruber proceeded to introduce the recipients of the President’s Awards for Distinguished Teaching, who were recognized by Dean of the Faculty Deborah Prentice.

Prentice began by acknowledging African American studies professor Ruha Benjamin, who taught AAS 235: Race is Socially Constructed: Now What?

Following Benjamin, classics professor Robert Kaster was recognized. Kaster is known for exemplary teaching in Latin.

Prentice proceeded to recognize Howard Stone, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, who is known for drawing parallels between abstract academics and daily life.

Stacy Wolf, professor of theater, received the last award. Wolf asks her students to take responsibility for their learning and has been said to have a lasting impact on their lives.

Prentice proceeded to express appreciation for the faculty members retiring this year.

Eisgruber followed by introducing the candidates for honorary degrees, who were recognized by Associate Dean of the College Khristina Gonzalez.

Among the recipients was former NBA player and prolific writer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Abdul-Jabbar was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2016.

“We honor him today as a towering humanitarian,” said Gonzalez.

Following Abdul-Jabbar, Juliet García was presented with the second honorary degree. Garcia, appointed as president of Texas Southmost College in 1986, was the first Mexican-American woman to ever lead a university in the United States. In 1991 she merged TSC with the University of Texas at Brownsville, creating a community university for which she also served as president.

“She created a new pathway for Latina students and their families,” said Gonzalez, adding that she has propelled thousands of students forward.

The next recipient of an honorary degree was Pamela Matson, who was awarded a degree in science. Matson has worked to preserve the world’s ecosystems and to understand the vulnerability of people to climate change.

Following Matson, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy Jeremiah Ostriker was awarded the next honorary degree. He previously worked as provost of the University, and his research has dramatically expanded our understanding of mass and dark matter.

The honorary degree for the doctor of laws was presented to Bunker Roy, an Indian social activist who founded the Barefoot College. Roy trained professionals in his native India to work in fields such as technology, teaching, and health. In 2010, he was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people in the world.

After the honorary degrees were awarded, Eisgruber proceeded to deliver his concluding remarks to the graduating class. He explained that he unfortunately did not remember the speech delivered to his own graduating class, delivered by then University president Bill Bowen GS ’58. After rereading the speech, Eisgruber reflected on the commitment to service emphasized then, and how such a commitment remains important today.

He underscored the empathy needed in today’s day and age, particularly in order to overcome the difficult politics and disagreements characteristic of the time. Faith in institutions remains crucial as a willingness to connect and collaborate, he said.

“I wish you. above all else. a measure of Bill’s indefatigable optimism, of the conviction that we can and must work together to improve the world, and that learning, teaching, and the pursuit of knowledge are an essential part of what it takes to do good,” Eisgruber concluded.

Following his remarks, Associate Dean of Religious Life Rev. Theresa Thames delivered the closing benediction, and the graduates then joined together to sing “Old Nassau,” the last exercise of the graduation ceremony.

To represent their entering into the world from college, the seniors walked out of the wrought-iron FitzRandolph Gate away from Nassau Hall.