James Ramsey III, a graduate of Eastern Mennonite University’s Adult Degree Completion Program, captured the range of ages represented among the graduates at Eastern Mennonite University’s Commencement ceremony on Sunday, reminding all present that the empowerment of education spans a lifetime.
“Today, we celebrate whether we are 22, 42 or 62,” he said.
From the traditional undergraduate to the students that Ramsey characterized as “paper-writing weekend warriors” juggling family and work obligations, the three-hour ceremony under the massive white tent on EMU’s front lawn symbolized both an end and a beginning.
“It’s been a long journey,” said one Master of Science in Nursing graduate who arrived early, her apricot-lined silken hood folded neatly on her lap as she waited patiently in Lehman Auditorium for the processional to begin.
On the occasion of its 100th Commencement, the university conferred 386 undergraduate degrees and 154 graduate degrees, including its first honorary doctorate to alumna and Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee MA ’07.
“In one hundred years of EMU’s existence, who would have told anyone that a girl from West Africa, a tiny village, a tiny country, who came here to validate and to justify her inclusion in peacebuilding work at the community level would come back several years later as the first honorary degree-awardee?” Gbowee asked.
In a Commencement address titled “Urgently Needed! Defenders of Peace and Justice,” Gbowee offered statistics about the rising numbers of global conflicts, armed and insurgent groups, drug cartels, terror attacks and deaths. “Beyond these numbers, when we look around our world, especially in places people never think about, you have issues of housing crisis, you have rape and exploitation of women in different parts of the world, the threat to the environment and many other vices.”
The “burning” question, she said, is “Who is going to fix our world? Who is going to give hope or the hopeless? Who is going solve the problems of the world?”
“Step out,” she urged. “Whatever your calling may be, defend peace and justice with your actions, your interactions and your attitude. Most especially, when issues are not longer trending and the hashtags are no longer hashing, and the lights and the cameras are off, defend peace, defend justice. You can never go wrong.”
Five student speakers representing various undergraduate and graduate programs preceded the main address:
- Undergraduates and Cords of Distinction awardees Harrison Horst, a sociology major from Landisville, Pennsylvania, and Keyri Lopez-Godoy, a liberal arts major with PreK-6 licensure, from Charlottesville, Virginia;
- James Ramsey III, a leadership and organizational management major with the Adult Degree Completion Program;
- Sabrina Burress, who earned a master’s degree in counseling; and
- Sarah Bailey, who earned a Master’s of Divinity from Eastern Mennonite Seminary.
Harrison Horst urged his classmates to be aware of complacency, “a system in which we all take part.”
“The thing about complacency,” he said, “is you can’t just announce its arrival and ask for a showdown in the wrestling ring, you have to set out on your own and begin the match yourself. That’s how systems work and that’s why they’re so scary. They’re sneaky and quiet and subtle.”
Horst urged his classmates to find ways to open themselves to a world beyond “the comfortable cocoon.”
“My challenge and prayer for all of us that we may remember to keep ‘The Dream’ in front of us as we move forward, even if that dream doesn’t always fit our expectations or aspirations, even if it seems silly sometimes or out of reach always, even if our friends and family tell us to take it down off the wall. Let’s not be afraid to be radically authentic. Instead let’s be radically vulnerable in our search for authenticity. And finally, let us always be courageous in our very human search for meaning and our eternal struggle against complacency.”
Keyri Lopez-Godoy shared memories of those who supported, encouraged and inspired her while at EMU, including her hard-working family members and the first-grader in her student-teaching classroom who begged her to stay “forever.”
“We’ve been given two precious gifts,” said Keyri Lopez-Godoy, who came the United States from El Salvador when she was eight. “One is to build relationships with others; the second is to see with our hearts.”
Enabled by people who impact and change us, she said, “we are indeed powerful beyond measure, and our light has the power to liberate others.”
James Ramsey III spoke on behalf of those students who returned to complete their college education after walking “different paths:” starting families and careers, taking care of sick family members, or recovering from illnesses. Desiring to “learn more, to do more and to be more,” this particular group of students sustained each other as they traveled. “We have been empowered with tools to create connection, effect change, and leave the world better than when we found it,” he said. “We are proof that the biggest challenges have the greatest rewards.”
Sabrina Bailey spoke of her growth as a leader, a role that has sometimes been a frightening prospect: “To be a great leader, you have to be responsible. To be a great, responsible leader, you have to be able to cultivate new, responsible great leaders. To be a great leader, you must first know yourself.”
Her two years at EMU, filled with “intimate, important conversations” with counseling professors and others,” have helped her to learn more about who she is.
“Be a kind and gentle leader,” she said. “Remember sometimes you will stand and sometimes you will stand aside. You must always lead from a place of knowing there is something stronger and more powerful there to support you. You will surely set your own pace, but remember, don’t lose your footing, and don’t ever be afraid to challenge.”
The degree is a receipt, “a symbol of the exchange that has happened for us here,” said seminary graduate Sarah Bailey. “Because over these past years in seminary, we have been trading things in and today is the culmination of that. We’re trading in all the bucketfuls of coffee that we’ve lived on for some spiritual awakening. We’re trading in our insecurity for new confidence. We’re trading in our original questions for some new and better ones. We’re trading in our biases for some compassion. We’re trading in our desires to change the world for some skills to actually do it … We’re trading in who we thought we were for who God made us to be.”
More Commencement coverage:
- CJP graduates from eight states and 12 countries charged to ‘maximize healing’
- Eastern Mennonite Seminary graduates 22 ‘better Christ-followers’ to many callings
- Leymah Gbowee’s 2018 Commencement Address
Staff writer Christopher Clymer Kurtz contributed to this article.