Diversity is our strength, Landrieu tells graduates

May 13, 2018
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer
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Directly above, the Commencement Speaker Mitch Landrieu makes a point. Below are more scenes from the ceremony. (all photos by Jerry Swope)

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In his Commencement remarks to Saint Michael’s College 2018 graduates on Sunday, May 13, Mitch Landrieu, the recent mayor of New Orleans, essentially invited their promising generation to join in knocking racism off pedestals whenever politicians or change-fearing society try to elevate it.

“Those monuments had to come down because in New Orleans, we know that our diversity is our strength,” said Landrieu of the efforts he led last year to take down Confederate statues in his city, despite violent threats and strong opposition. He’ll receive a Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award next week for the stand he took.

“You know that here at Saint Michael’s College — diversity is the defining characteristic of the United States of America, the greatest nation on the planet,” Landrieu said, praising throughout his speech the proud mission, legacy and long civil rights activism of the College’s founding religious order, the Society of St. Edmund — which this year notes 175 years since its founding. Landrieu shared that his longtime communications director, Tyronne Walker, is a 2005 Saint Michael’s graduate and New Orleans native, while a beloved Landrieu college priest-mentor from Catholic University spent several summers at Saint Michael’s Playhouse.

Sunday’s program for Saint Michael’s 111th Commencement listed about 500 undergraduates – 289 Bachelor of Arts (BA) and 219 Bachelor of Science (BS) degrees, plus 63 master’s degree recipients,potential cap most of whom crossed the stage and received diplomas, with a handful of the names not called due to various requirements that are still being completed, or for other reasons.

Others receiving Saint Michael’s Honorary Degrees along with Landrieu at the ceremony similarly embodied the mission of the Edmundites: Fr. Joseph McLaughlin, SSE ’66, an expert on Edmundite and Saint Michael’s history and former superior general and trustee; and President Patricia McGuire of Trinity Washington College, who has spent a lifetime advocating for historically disenfranchised individuals, particularly black and Latina women in Washington, D.C., at the College she leads.

It was the last Commencement at the College’s helm for President John J. Neuhauser,Jack shakes hands who has announced plans to wind up his 10-plus year tenure this summer. Saturday evening the president joined the honorary degree recipients and hundreds packing the large Chapel of Saint Michael the Archangel for the overflowing for Baccalaureate Mass, presided over by Edmundite Fr. Brian Cummings ’86, director of Campus Ministry. A smaller dinner followed in the Dion Family Student Center for honorees and special guests. Landrieu said in dinner remarks that the liturgy and turnout were powerful and moving to him.

Both Saturday and Sunday featured perfect May weather. Sunday’s Commencement chiefly focused, as always, on academic achievement of the graduates. Karen Talentino, vice president of academic affairs and master of ceremonies, announced the top academic prizes: The 2018 valedictorians, all with perfect 4.0 averages, were Aisling O’Leary of Oak Park, IL, a mathematics major with minors in Spanish and philosophy; Lindsay Rogers of Park Ridge, NJ, a neuroscience major; and Roxanne Withers of Hampden, ME, a biology graduate with minors in chemistry and mathematics. Talentino said 63 graduates completed the rigorous Honors Program and several hundred were inducted into various national honor societies.

The Katherine Fairbanks Memorial Award and Father Prevel Memorial Award are for the woman and man, respectively, “demonstrating commitment and achievement related to the intellectual, spiritual, moral and social values of Saint Michael’s College.” Fairbanks winner was Summer Colley of Colchester, VT, who majored in political science with minors in psychology, philosophy and gender studies. Her college career demonstrated passion for social justice, as she lead the campus Peace and Justice Club, interned with the Vermont Commission on Women and Vermont Works for Women,flower girls was a writing coach, worked with local refugees and the Student Global AIDS Campaign, and kept a stellar GPA with election to honor societies.

Prevel winner was Zachary Maroon of Scarborough, ME, who had a double major in business and economics, had many campus leadership positions including with the Student Association, the Business Society and Water Polo Club, and was an orientation leader. He rebuilt the financial reporting system for the Student Association, exceled in college-level finance and accounting team regional competitions, and was inducted into business and economics honor societies.

The graduate-student address came from Patrick LaClair, from the education master’s program, who teaches Latin at Lamoille Union High School and is from Montpelier. He urged cultivating a perspective that “we don’t need to do a lot to do a lot of good,” in the sense that even the “little” proper actions hold power, taken in sum over time, provided we take time to help others and teach about the worth of everyday good.

Julia Colasanti (Northville, MI, Environmental Studies/MJD) of the Senior Class was chosen by classmates to speak. She made “time” the theme of her remarks, peppering an entertaining speech with some inside jokes about their common Saint Michael’s experiences that all could relate to. “We are how we spend our time,” she said, suggesting that even times that might be seen as “goofing off” among friends can be time well spent, for the joy and friendships they cultivate.

The main music selection was an original song by Bailey Jeffko ’18 titled “See You Again,” sung with an ensemble of eight other senior student-musicians and one junior, featuring Bailey at the keyboard and lead vocal with two classmates on guitar. The longest part of the nearly three-hour ceremony was the presentation of degrees, with Dean Jeffrey Trumbower reading each name as recipients crossed the dais.

Mitch Landrieu — who only last week ended his 8-year term as mayor due to term limits — shared in his Commencement address that a high school mentor clued him in on his responsibility to “do the most good for the most people in the shortest period of time.”  landrieu closeupHe told personal stories about his initial dream of being a Broadway actor, until an early post-college audition or two in New York City were “the first time … that my hopes and dreams met my reality.”  This year’s graduates likely have such moments, he said, but, “I know you’ll be okay, because I’ve seen your generation at work.” He cited Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous remark about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, but added “it does not bend on its own – someone has to do the bending. And that someone is you.” He had a list of 10 sound pithy tips for life, from “accept your failures,” and “take life one step at a time,” to, “the more you give, the more you get.”

“Reject the dark aspects of our nature and taste the true joy that pure freedom can bring,” Landrieu said. “Don’t ever forget that God loves you and there is nothing you can do about it.”

Graduates and families filled the main campus green under blue skies in front of Durick Library afterward, with refreshments served and faculty by departments at tables to meet graduates from their majors and their families.

At 1:30 p.m. in the Chapel, graduate Lance Jandreau of Ft. Kent, ME, a psychology graduate and aspiring therapist for veterans, who completed the Army ROTC Program through UVM, had a special ceremony with close to 50 in attendance to observe his commissioning this weekend into the Army National Guard. Military officers and comrades from ROTC and the Guard,huggers Saint Michael’s Coordinator of Student Veteran Services Ken O’Connell, several Edmundites, President Jack Neuhauser and other administration officials joined Jandreau’s family and friends for prayers and military ceremonials, and Jandreau had the chance to give a first salute to his father, who is a proud veteran.

President Neuhauser, as he has done with past classes, told graduates that, “Perhaps more than anything I wish for you the gift of kindness …” and, “…at the end it is the little things of life that create difference,” and finally: “I hope each of you…will return to this sandy plain below a mountain and next to a lake as often as you can. You will always be welcome here.”

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