Austin College President Steven O’Day sent some 300 students out into the “real world” Sunday morning with college degrees, words of encouragement and inspiration, and challenges to make their communities and their world better places than they find them.
Commencement exercises for the Class of 2018 were held on the Clyde L. Hall Graduation Court, north of Caruth Administration Building, with thousands of family and friends cheering on graduates. Student speaker Pranav Sheth, selected by his fellow seniors, alluded to experiences he and his classmates had shared that were special to them — mostly fun moments, but also learning opportunities they had been given in and out of the classroom. He expressed thanks on behalf of the class to the staff and faculty of the college, as well as the parents and families of the students.
“As we move onto the next stage in our lives, it’s important to recognize that things may not go as planned, but I believe this class is full of resilient leaders,” Sheth said to classmates. “The fact that we made it to this special moment is a testament of our perseverance and commitment to excellence — and without a doubt, our class can get through just about anything. … In the wise words of modern day philosopher Drake, ‘Never let success get to your head, and never let failure get to your heart.’ Class of 2018, go out there and change the world.”
A stirring challenge for students also came from Commencement speaker Joyce M. Davis, a veteran journalist, author and communications professional, urged graduates to understand the “power of one.” Davis said that in her work as a foreign editor and correspondent in the world’s most volatile regions, she has seen that power.
“Over more than two decades, I have reported how the actions of one person can plunge the world into brutality and war, or lift it from hatred and despair,” Davis said. “I have come to know that peace and conflict often begin and end with one person. With one person, like you here today.”
The power of one is often left untapped, she said.
“Too often the good people — people like you here today — stand back and allow the forces of chaos and destruction to advance,” Davis said. “Too many good people underestimate their power and remain silent in the face of oppression around the world. Too many good people simply turn away from conflict, not wanting to get involved.”
Davis spoke of individuals she has personally interacted with in her work: Osama bin Laden, Yasser Arafat, Sheikh Yassin and Munir al Makdah, all of whose power has been used for evil, and those like Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Muhammad Yunus, who use their power to bring peace, ease suffering and lift others from poverty.
“In times like these, when the world is in turmoil and our own communities are wracked with political, economic and racial divides, there is a clear mandate for those gifted with solid educational training and steeped in the ethical values you’ve nurtured here at Austin College,” Davis said. “In times like these, we need people such as you to join the global forces for good. And so, I am compelled to ask you newly educated, enthusiastic, and inspired graduates to ponder one essential question: Will you sit back and allow evil to triumph around you? Will you tune out the world’s cries for help and sink into the soft cushions of America’s professional elites? Or will you use your significant intellectual and moral power to reduce the space where intolerance, hatred, and despotism can triumph?
“Do you have the courage to wield your power of one for good, whether in your own families, your own communities, or the world at large?” she asked graduates. “Do you have the courage to open your eyes to the suffering around you — whether close at home or in the far corners of the globe? Do you have the courage to use your power of one to take a stand for the principles of decency, justice, human rights, and equality for people both at home and around the world?”
Closing, she told crowd listening intently, “How you answer these questions, in the quietness of your own hearts and minds, will most assuredly shape the world that awaits you and the world your children will inherit.”
Following a standing ovation for the Commencement address, Sheila Amin Gutiérrez de Piñeres, executive vice president for Academic Affairs and dean of the faculty, announced two awards for outstanding seniors based on their entire academic record, with no distinction between the two. The J.M. Robinson Medal and the J.C. Kidd Medal have been awarded since 1935 and 1940, respectively. The 2018 Robinson Medal went to Deric Zane McCurry of Littlefield, Texas, who completed three majors in Political Science, Religion & Philosophy, and Communication, and completed a senior honors thesis to earn Honors in Political Science. The Kidd Medal went to Marissa Alyse Wilkinson of Portland, Oregon, who completed a major in International Economics & Finance and minors in Theatre and Global Science, Technology & Society.
Davis was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters during the next portion of the ceremony, as was John Hitt, the 26-year president of the University of Central Florida who transitions to president emeritus of that university this summer. He is a 1962 graduate of Austin College. Melinda Veatch, a 1985 Austin College graduate and Presbyterian minister who presented the Baccalaureate sermon Saturday evening, was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity.
After the recognition of other Departmental Honors students, the time arrived for the presentation of diplomas. Amid applause and cheers, O’Day presented diplomas to students as they crossed the stage, first the Master of Arts in Teaching graduates, then the Bachelor of Arts graduates.
And suddenly, that which students had been working toward for years, was nearly over. O’Day offered some encouragement.
“It can be daunting, starting the rest of your life, but you can do it,” he said. “You can make a difference. You have already made a difference.”
For a moment, he reminded them of all they had accomplished in their coursework, on the athletic fields, on the stage and in the studio, of their service to others and their leadership on the campus, of their international adventures, and of the self-discovery they have experienced.
“Now you are embarking on a new adventure — a job, an internship, a fellowship,” O’Day said. “Some of you are heading back to the classroom for graduate studies — some as the teacher.”
Again, he stopped to contemplate the doubt that students might feel — that they weren’t doing anything really special right now, but that someday they would — when they were a doctor or started their own business or other “future” plans.
“Being you makes a difference,” O’Day said. “Being your best self, interested in ideas, caring about people and issues — this makes a difference. You are the future we are waiting for. … I like to say that Austin College transforms students so that they can transform the world. You have been transformed, whether you realize it today or not. Now it’s time to go transform the world.”
A welcome from the Alumni Board president, a song from the A Cappella Choir, a benediction, and the new alumni were sent forth to find and change their own place in the world.
Vickie Kirby is the executive director of communication for Austin College.