Most of the audience at Eastern Mennonite University’s 98th Commencement ceremony Sunday, May 1, didn’t realize the special music provided by the string quartet was a world premiere composition of retiring President Loren E. Swartzendruber’s favorite hymn.
While juniors Isaac Dahl, Quinn Kathrineberg, Jacinda Stahly and Maria Yoder played Professor Ryan Keebaugh’s arrangement of “Be Thou My Vision,” the graduates in attendance settled in for a two-hour ceremony that marked the end of their time at EMU.
A total of 556 degrees and certificates were conferred, inclusive of students at the Harrisonburg campus and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, site. This included 378 undergraduate degrees, 169 graduates degrees and nine certificates in pastoral ministry studies.
[View a photo album of Commencement here.]
Among those were 139 Adult Degree Completion Program (ADCP) graduates, including speaker Letitia Bates, who praised her fellow graduates as “skillful believers.” In 2008, she was electrified by then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s “Yes, We Can” speech. His energy and enthusiasm, and then the work of ADCP graduates before her, helped to inspire Bates to work “word by word, line by line, page by page” on her long journey towards graduation. Such confidence and “skillful belief” will stand students in good stead in the coming years, she said.
Kente donned for first time
Notwithstanding personal firsts, the ceremony included historic firsts for the institution as well. Six students completed the new master’s of organizational leadership program, noted graduate Elizabeth Girvan, executive director of the local non-profit Skyline Literacy.
And the audience was given a good view of a new tradition on campus by speaker and Black Student Union co-president Londen Wheeler, who was among about 20 students who wore the brightly colored Kente cloth.
Many undergraduates wear stoles, or vestments, at Commencement that are symbolic of their cross-cultural studies, a graduation requirement. Senior class co-president Austin Mumaw, for example, wore a white stole with two Jerusalem crosses given to all students who participate on the Middle East cross-cultural semester.
The Kente stoles were awarded in a special ceremony called “The Donning of the Kente,” said Multicultural Student Services advisor Celeste Thomas, who hosted the ceremony with keynote speaker James Madison University Professor Besi Brillian Muhonjain on April 15.
Originally a festive and ceremonial dress of Ghana, the Kente cloth has grown to be a vivid symbol of cultural heritage, social values and political thoughts, Thomas said.
In his speech, Wheeler, wearing a specially marked Kente to honor his leadership, noted EMU’s growing diverse student body and urged fellow graduates to be vigilant in keeping the university to its stated goals of hiring diverse faculty and staff.
“Remember that we still have work to do as alumni,” he told his fellow graduates. “Let us take care of this institution, invest our time in those who come after us, and hold this administration accountable in the changes we fought so hard for when we were students.”
Wheeler also wore the Cords of Distinction, one of 10 students honored for his contributions to the campus and the broader community. A visual and communication arts major, he plans a career in photography.
Swartzendruber: All conversations are ‘sacred’
In a Commencement address titled “Sacred Conversations,” Swartzendruber reprised his EMU inaugural address of March 2003. He spoke of how “our lives are often shaped most profoundly by our human interactions and by conversations that are often most meaningful only in retrospect.”
Technology is not the best mediator of such conversations, he noted, adding that new innovations in technology, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, have become part of our daily communication in the years since he became EMU’s president.
On campus, however, graduates have engaged in conversations “that go to the heart of what it means to be human and to be human in relationship to the other,” at the same time, learning about and honoring difference. “In reality, almost every conversation has the possibility of being sacred when we see ‘the other’ as a person of dignity.”
He charged the class of 2016 to go forth “with a deep commitment to foster sacred conversations, to be exemplars of hope rather than fear, of calmness rather than anxiety, of grace rather than negativity.”
Podcasts and photo galleries of all the commencement weekend activities can be found at emu.edu/commencement