Bernard Lafayette at Sunday's Commencement ceremony at Ross Sports Center
Saint Michael's College's 108th annual Commencement demonstrated the power of love and courage to face down and persevere against the worst that humanity and nature have to offer: racism and hate, ISIS and Saddam Hussein, cancer, hopelessness among poor children and the elderly, religious bigotry.
Human antidotes to all that and more took to the podium, one after another. There was Commencement speaker Bernard Lafayette describing his historic nonviolent civil rights activism alongside Martin Luther King and Edmundite Father Maurice Ouellet '48 in the 1960s. His stories and words inspired awed attention from 454 undergraduate students and 22 graduate students who later walked across the stage to cheers from hundreds more in the audience of family and friends at the Ross Sports Center Sunday morning, May 10.
Earlier at the podium had been graduate program student speakers who included Ali Hammad Jumaah from Iraq – the cradle of civilization, as he noted -- talking about the toll on his life and family exacted from Saddam and later ISIS: hunger as a child, a home lost, a cousin kidnapped and executed. "I wish my parents could be here but I don't even know if they are alive," he said. But Ali pursued a dream against the odds to come to the U.S. to study on a full scholarship from the Iraqi government, staying through to finish his degree. His co-speaker was Nazgul Kabylbaeva, a Fulbright Scholar from Kyrgyzstan who also inspired with a tale of how hard it was to leave her young son with family for so long as she pursued a dream of becoming a teacher, beating out hundreds of other applicants.
The undergraduate speaker following those two, chosen by classmates, was Colin Flanders, journalism major from Schuylerville, NY, who described getting a cancer diagnosis while in college. He told of spending 60 nights in hospital, his mom faithfully by his side throughout, wondering if he'd ever make it back to Saint Michael's. The answer to the question – "spoiler alert," he joked -- was his presence there. Classmates gave a standing ovation.
An honorary degree also went to Loretto Sister Cyril Mooney, I.B.V.M., a native of Ireland who has labored in love for 60 years in India to educate, rescue and care for homeless children, the children of prostitutes, abandoned elderly and others of the most marginalized and vulnerable souls on earth. Saint Michael's MOVE service trips have worked at her missions. The other honorary degree went to John Allen, Jr., prize-winning religion correspondent for the Boston Globe and National Catholic Reporter whose writing fights against global anti-Catholic persecution and draws attention to the power of diversity in faith.
Talentino specially mentioned graduates with current or former military service: Army 2nd Lieutenant William C. Briand, and veterans from various services branches, Joshua K. Millner, John P. Maille, Nathan Gabel and Matthew Guffey. Another special moment was when the parents of active-duty Marine Nathaniel F. Quealy, an environmental studies major from New Hampshire who was called suddenly and unexpectedly to an overseas mission, accepted their son's diploma on his behalf, to another standing ovation.
Inspiring too were remarkable academic achievements noted by Master of Ceremonies Karen Talentino, vice president for Academic Affairs, who presented the Father Prevel and Katherine Fairbanks Memorial Awards, for the male and female student in the graduating class who demonstrate commitment and achievement related to the intellectual, spiritual, moral and social values of Saint Michael's.
Fairbanks Award winner Lauren C. Kilmister of Dunbarton, NH, majored in both environmental studies and political science with a 3.86 GPA; she was in the Honors Program and Phi Beta Kappa, was a committed member and leader of the service organization MOVE, a leader of Outdoor Volunteer Efforts (community environmentalism), and was a classroom leaders weighing ethics, questioning texts, challenging peers, said Talentino, who lauded the winner's "ability to see both sides of a situation and find common ground to keep pushing forward."
Prevel Award winner Timothy M. Nagy of Leverett, MA, completed a double-major in Religious Studies and Business Administration with a minor in Classics, with a 3.6 GPA in the Honors Program. He won a summer research grant, presented at professional meetings, which paid off in his acceptance to prestigious graduate programs: Princeton Seminary, Yale Divinity School and University of Oxford. He also was active in nearly every choral-singing group on campus and was a tutor and student government officer, and quite active in Campus Ministry activities. His balancing of academics, personal interests and spiritual life is "quite extraordinary," Talentino said.
The strength of the class included 50 seniors completing Honors requirements, 26 graduating Summa Cum Laude (3.90 GPA or above, including four with 4.0). Co-Valedictorians of the Class of 2015 were Brianne Conlon (biology Honors, Phi Beta Kappa) of Andover, MA, and Greta Zarro, (sociology/anthropology Honors, Phi Beta Kappa) of Burlington, VT. As is traditional, they led the recessional from the ceremony.
In his Commencement address, Bernard Lafayette spoke of the warm feeling and respect he developed over the weekend for the Saint Michael's community and campus – onetime home, he noted, to his friend, the late Edmundite Fr. Maurice Ouellet, who had risked his life to attend mass meetings for black voting rights in Selma, AL, while a missionary there in the 1960s, befriending a young Lafayette along the way. Lafayette remembered them talking late into many nights together.
On Saturday before Commencement, Lafayette met with students in a Peace and Justice class, he said, and was impressed by their insights, and by the community he felt there and elsewhere – symbolized by the connectedness even of the campus buildings architecturally. "I felt then I knew where Father Ouellet was coming from, but now I know where he came from," Lafayette told a dinner gathering Saturday night at Dion Center.
In his Commencement talk, titled "Fear, Freedom and Love," Lafayette addressed some current issues briefly, including recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore, much a result of "young people in the fatigue of their fear," he said.
That theme of "freedom from fear" was a thread running through the ordained Baptist preacher's well-received and well-crafted talk, beginning with reference to an FDR speech of 1941, on through his friend Dr. King's famous words about having been to the mountaintop the night before King's assassination, when Lafayette was with him in Memphis. "He had promised me he would join me in Washington once the Memphis march was completed. He was a man of his word. Three years ago he showed up on the DC Mall in the form of a 30-foot statue," he said. "They did put a hit on him, but it was a hit and miss. They shot him, but they did not stop him." He told graduates they would do well to regard King and Ouellet and those like them as role models, "Stand up for the equality of all people, stand up for justice, stand up for peace and nonviolence," Lafayette said.
In welcoming remarks, President Jack Neuhauser said when he greets each class as first-years, he prays to himself that all will grow in kindness, wisdom and understanding, "and will be safe until this day." More than anything, he said, "I wish you the gift of kindness." Trustees Chairman William Gallagher reminded students that in this technological age, "technology will never be a substitute for community. Live life in person."
Jonathan D'Amore, associate dean, stood in to announce all degree recipients in place of Dean Jeffrey Ayres who was attending his own daughter's college graduation. A beautiful musical selection "Rivers and Roads," a popular song by the popular band The Head and the Heart, was performed by a group of student vocalists and instrumentalists who delighted fellow graduates with sweet and textured harmonies accompanied by guitar and percussion.
Edmundite Superior General Very Rev. Stephen Hornat '72 gave the invocation, while Campus Ministry Director Rev. Brian Cummings SSE '86 gave the benediction. Reception afterward was in the Tarrant Center since rain threatened on a muggy day. Pipers led the graduates from Alliot Student Center to Ross as is tradition, with the class passing through a gauntlet of faculty on either side in front of the chapel steps.
See a gallery of Commencement photos