Commencement 2017 celebrates diversity, achievement and the value of a liberal arts degree
By Jamie Welch, Editor-in-Chief
As graduates prepared to retreat down the steps of Penn Hall, symbolically culminating their college careers, hundreds of family members—smartphones in tow—crowded the lawn in front of Beachem Portico eager to catch a glimpse of one of the 577 graduating seniors from the Class of 2017.
“Gettysburg is about the human experience,” Gettysburg College president Janet Morgan Riggs said to the graduating class.
“Gettysburg is also about treating your work like art. Plunging in and taking initiatives. Summoning your creative juices. Being brave enough to try something new. Taking the time for reflection, and working towards ever better outcomes. While you have all approached your art in different ways you have all been artists who have completed your own liberal arts master piece. All of you have engaged with a series of courses spanning multiple disciplines. Courses that challenged you to think critically and address complex issues. You have gained skills and confidence in articulating your ideas and opened yourselves to new ways of living and thinking. More than half of you through studying abroad. You have engaged in public service, competed on playing fields, participated in and led student organizations, performed on stage, presented your research here on campus and around the world,” Riggs continued.
“Class of 2017, it’s a big day. A day of celebration and reflection, of hope and inspiration. Take it all in. The pomp and circumstance, the speeches. The reading of your classmates’ names. And remember that all of us are here today for you, Class of 2017, and we are very happy and proud to share this day with you,” Riggs concluded.
Haya Mohanna, mathematical economics major and business minor, spoke on behalf of the graduating class.
“I’m an international student from the Gaza Strip, Palestine,” she said. “When you are an international student you hear about Harvard, Yale, MIT. When Gettysburg accepted me, I said sure, Gettysburg, yeah. I remember the college’s shuttle picking me up from Reagan airport. And on my way to the unknown I started seeing buildings go shorter. Taxis disappearing. Farmlands appearing. And I said to myself, oh, this is not good.”
“Here is the plan. You finish your business administration degree, and whatever they need as a liberal arts college and you get out of that place,” she continued. “Well, here I am. Four years later. Letting you know that not only I discovered that Gettysburg College does not offer a business administration degree, but also nothing went according to plan. And I could not be more thankful.”
Mohanna spoke about the war in Gaza which meant that there were long stretches of time where she lost contact with her family and didn’t know if they were alive.
“I stand here today [not having] seen my family or gone home since I left for my first year. I’m telling you this place is my home. And these past years I met friends, staff, professors, families off campus and host parents who opened their homes and were the hand I needed when I fell down.”
“My experience might be different but it is for sure no better or worse. We are all different. Some of us belong since day one. Some of us belong since day 1,000. And some of us still don’t feel like they belong. But guess what? We all have something in common. We are sitting here today wearing a cap and a gown and carrying the orange and blue.”
“But I’m going to ask you, so what? You graduated from Gettysburg College. So what? Take your Gettysburg roots and don’t aim for the sky but rather make it your start. We are powered with weapons; weapons of knowledge, diversity and global citizenship. We are critical thinkers. Challenge yourself every day to make an impact and just remember how that one hand was your savior here, be that one hand someday to someone else.”
“Now, ask yourself, if not me, then who? If not now, then when? To celebrate with all of the languages I know I would like to say in my mother language, in French and finally in the language that unites us, Class of 2017, congratulations!”
Educator, museum professional and humanitarian Johnnetta Betsch Cole delivered the keynote Commencement speech and received an honorary degree during the Sunday ceremony.
“It’s certainly a joy for me to be with you in this historic place,” Cole said, “a place called Gettysburg.”
“The place where President Abraham Lincoln delivered a speed that was 10 sentences long. It contained 200 words that were delivered in two minutes. And yet, it was a speech that lifted up the bold and bodacious idea that all men are created equal,” Cole remarked.
“You have managed to do when don’t wanted to prevail,” she said.
Cole posed a question to the graduates: “Will you be the leader our world needs?”
Cole answered her question in the form of six characteristics she contended “you must have to be the leaders of our communities, our nations and our world.”
“First, you know, it’s clearly a plus that you already have something you need. A fine liberal arts education. You have the kind of education that Gettysburg College has so proudly helped you to gain,” Cole said.
“And now, as you continue to learn, you can do so in a formal way or you can simply do so by being attuned to all that is around you. But whatever…you continue to learn, I want to warn you, it will be costly in terms of money at times, and always in terms of your time…but as an old saying puts it, if you think education is expensive, huh, you ought to try ignorance,” she said.
Cole said the second characteristic leaders must have is a passion to serve.
“Leadership is not about self-aggrandizement. It is about doing what is in the best interest of others,” Cole said. “What distinguishes a leader is that he or she pays more rent than other folks have to pay.”
Thirdly, Cole remarked that the world needs “the kind of leader who sets high expectations for himself, or herself, and then works hard to meet those expectations.”
She shared a quote from one of her “sheroes”, Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was a writer during the Harlem Renaissance who said that her mother pushed her to “jump for the sun” and that “you may not get there, but at least you will get off of the ground.”
Cole’s fourth characteristic is to be collaborative in one’s work.
“Of course, competition has its place in certain endeavors. And certainly this afternoon we want some good competition because we have got a team that we’re supporting. But, even in sports, when one team is competing against another, it is the team that wins,” Cole said.
Cole quoted an African proverb on teamwork: “When spider webs unite, they can even tie up a lion.”
The fifth characteristic Cole said leaders should possess was a passion for the arts.
“Yes, our nation and our world need the advantages that can result from what is called the STEM fields. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but we need to put an A in STEM. And that spells STEAM. Science, technology, art and mathematics,” Cole said.
”The visual arts have the power to not only help us to understand ourselves but to understand others. I also challenge you, future leaders, to work to bring greater diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion into the world of arts. For the arts should belong to everyone,” Cole added.
The sixth and final attribute Cole said today’s leaders must possess is a drive to “stand up and speak out for what is right and what is just.”
Cole spoke of the divisions facing the country and the world today. She spoke of what she called “a resurgence in open displays of bigotry and countless expressions of racism, sexism and antisemitism.”
“Today, more than ever, our world needs leaders who will stand up and speak out about the beauty and the power of diversity…of course, we need leaders who move beyond tolerance to respecting and celebrating human diversity,” Cole said.
“Each of us must do what we can to make our world better, to make our world more peaceful, to make our world more just,” she added.
“So, dear graduates, I ask you to go on and be the leaders our world needs you to be,” Cole concluded.
The retiring President of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg Michael Cooper-White and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Chairman of Vaccines Dr. Moncef Slaoui also received honorary degrees during the Sunday ceremony. Trustee Emeritus David LeVan ’68 was presented with the Lavern H. Brenneman Award for Exemplary Volunteer Service to Gettysburg College. Professor Shirley Anne Warshaw was presented with the Gettysburg College Award for Distinguished Teaching, the highest honor the faculty can bestow upon a colleague.
Kristina Chamberlin was named the salutatorian of the Class of 2017 and Samuel Edwards was named the valedictorian.
Following the presentation of degrees, President Riggs returned to the podium to offer her charge to the graduates.
“As I have talked with many of you during the spring semester I have heard stories of how Gettysburg College has changed you and helped you develop into a greater version of yourselves,” Riggs said.
“I want you to know that you, too, have changed Gettysburg. I have learned from you. As have our faculty and staff. And you have learned from one another. You stepped forward to support those in need and you have inspired members of our community to think differently, to do more, to have greater aspirations. And I thank you for that,” Riggs said.
“So, today, my charge to you is simple: continue to act for the greater good. Take this education, this privilege you have, and use it to make a difference. As you move into your future, let your actions be infused not only with the intellectual skills you have acquired, but also with humility, compassion, and integrity. In doing so, you will, indeed, do great work,” Riggs concluded.
News editor Benjamin Pontz contributed to this report.