Leymah Gbowee does a dance move to celebrate the graduation from EMU of her eldest child, Joshua Mensah (behind her). Gbowee, an EMU alumna who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, was the keynote speaker at EMU's 96th commencement on April 27. (Photo by Michael Sheeler)

Nobel Laureate Gbowee helps EMU graduates to appreciate taking action – and dancing – in the present

Under a postcard-perfect blue sky at Eastern Mennonite University, 467 members of the graduating class of 2014 heard Nobel Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee call them to “take action in the present” rather than be paralyzed by uncertainty about what their future holds.

“Begin with what you have,” she said, using “your little gift to change the world.”

Gbowee referred with pride in her commencement speech to being a graduate of EMU (she earned a master’s degree in conflict transformation in 2007) and to being the mother of a 2014 graduate, Joshua Mensah. “My home is 5,000 miles away from this campus, but this is a place that is very close to my heart.”

She said she chose EMU for her eldest son because she wanted a university with “a whole lot of Jesus and lots of churches” in the vicinity, but “limited partying.”

Mensah, a digital media major, was one of 351 students receiving bachelor’s degrees. Eighty graduate degrees were conferred, including the first graduates from EMU’s two-year-old MA in Biomedicine program. Graduate certificates, associate degrees, and pastoral ministry degrees were also conferred.

James Thorne (hand raised) shouts "It's about time," as his son, Andrew Thorne, crosses the stage during EMU's 96th annual commencement ceremony. Sitting beside James Thorne is Andrew's mother, Wanda Thorne. (Photo by Michael Sheeler)
James Thorne (hand raised) shouts gleefully, “It’s about time,” as his son, Andrew, walks across the stage during commencement. Beside James is Andrew’s mother, Wanda. (Photo by Michael Sheeler)

Among the thousands of family members and friends in the audience were 10 relatives of Andrew Thorne, a well-known figure on campus for his basketball prowess. Less well-known is that he flunked out of EMU after his freshman year.

Thorne appealed for re-admission, hoping to prove that he could be the first member of his extended family to finish college. The following years were not entirely smooth, including at least one brush with the law. But, in Thorne’s words, basketball coach Kirby Dean “stayed in my ear to push me along and to be honest. He never gave up, and he’s been getting on my nerves for four years! But that’s what people need.”

An EMU news article published in December 2013 showed that Thorne, in his fifth year at EMU, was still struggling to complete his required coursework. Upon reading the article, Coach Dean posted this comment:

You need to really focus and finish strong! You can see the light at the end of the tunnel so keep grinding! Years from now, I need to be able to tell other recruits about ‘Andrew Thorne’…where he came from, what he had to overcome, the contributions you are making to society, and the successful life you are leading now. That’s where this story needs to go over the coming years. Get it done.

When Andrew’s name was called and he walked across the stage to receive his diploma, his father James waved the commencement program in the air and yelled, “It’s about time!”

Andrew’s 27-year-old brother (named James like his father) got leave from his work as a Norfolk-based petty officer in the U.S. Navy to be present. “I knew he was going to make it,” said his brother, though “it was not an easy ride for him.”

Their mother, Wanda, said she is sure “Drew” – as the family calls him – “is going to be successful – he’s proven that he can overcome a lot of obstacles in his life.”

Drew himself was all smiles as he hugged his family, but he was a man of few words in talking about his accomplishment. He simply said, “It means the world. It’s a fresh start. It’s a new beginning.”

More from commencement weekend:

Cords of Distinction ceremony (podcast)

Seminary commencement ceremony (podcast)

Seminary Students Celebrate Graduation at Eastern Mennonite Seminary” – WHSV/TV3 (video)

Nurses’ pinning ceremony (podcast)

Seminary Baccalaureate (podcast)