On Sunday, May 5th, 2013, Berea College held its 141st Commencement Ceremony. It was significant not only for our students but also because it was the first ceremony for our new president. I will say upfront that this is the nicest thing anyone has required me to do. I am a faculty member here (yes, officially, I am an Assistant Professor of Library Science, but nobody really calls me that, which is fine by me not being one for fancy titles). Faculty are required, unless they have an excused reason, to attend the commencement ceremonies and to do so in regalia. So I dug out my masters regalia so I could participate and march in the procession with the rest of the faculty. There is a certain sense of belonging you get from marching with the faculty in a moment of celebration. We came together to celebrate the achievements and successes of our students who now will go out into the world to do some good. This is a celebration that feels big, yet it is very intimate.
Before the ceremony, the faculty line up in the hallway along the old gymnasium, in preparation to march into the new gymnasium where the event will take place. The students are lining up in the old gym. The music starts, and the students begin to march, and they walk along the hallway where we are lined up, and we cheer for them. We smile; we cheer; we high five some of our students who were in our classrooms, including the library classrooms, not too long ago. You can see the joy and pride in their faces as they walk past us. And then we march in, followed by the rest of the academic procession.
Naturally, we had some speeches, but there was also music by our student ensembles and choirs. The college also conferred an honorary doctor of laws degree on Peter J. O'Connor (college press release about Mr. O'Connor; biographical page about him from Fair Share Housing Development). Mr. O'Connor was one of the lawyers who argued cases that would shape the Mount Laurel Doctrine for fair housing (link from the New Jersey Digital Library, which I found a bit better than using Wikipedia's article, which seems a bit biased). Mr. O'Connor was to give the charge to the Class of 2013. I managed to take some quick notes on my program from his speech.
- He begins by highlighting Berea College's social justice mission.
- His speech topic is the meaning of social justice. It is a simple concept: treat others with respect and fairness as we would be treated.
- Live a life of service with the goal of ensuring a dignified life for all.
- Equal opportunity for all.
- Live a life guided by Berea College's motto (God has made of one blood, all the peoples of the Earth). We are all brothers and sisters.
- Social justice starts in the home with values taught by our parents.
- Forgiveness is an integral part of social justice.
- Sometimes in life you have to do tough things.
- Life is an opportunity to help others.
- Has the belief that the U.S. has a moral obligation to help alleviate poverty in the world, but it lacks the stomach and commitment to do so. At least not until the problems of poverty, education, racism, are solved here.
- Social reforms are not 100 yard dashes. They are marathons.
- And now it is time for our graduate to go out and solve some problems.
From there, we would go to the presentation of the degrees. Unlike much larger institutions, with 232 graduates this time, the ceremony feels small and very personal. Our president shook every graduate's hand, and he hugged many of them, as they received their diplomas. Most moving to me is that many of them who had either very young siblings or children of their own marched up the stage with the children. I had never seen that before in any commencement (and I have been to a few), and it is indeed a moving and joyous thing to see. And in one case at least, an overseas student clutched the photo of his mother as he went to get his diploma. Such small details are what I will remember and take with me from that day.
After the event, I had time to mingle with faculty and greet some of the student with their families, families proud and happy for their sons and daughters who will now go into the world to, as Mr. O'Connor said, go solve some problems.
To see some more highlights of the event, including photos, see this post from the BC Now campus news site.