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The sesquecentennial speaker is president of the North Carolina NAACP.

Rev. Dr. William Barber II T’03 urges graduates to put the needs of others above their own.

May 2017 – In a rousing sesquicentennial address at Drew University, the Rev. Dr. William Barber II urged the Class of 2017 to “stand up for what is right against what is wrong.”

Noting that Drew’s first president was an abolitionist who previously was charged with inciting a riot after protesting slavery, Barber suggested that such a charge is worth it if you’re defending the rights of others—be they poor, foreign or the target of racism. In short, he called on graduates to put the needs of others ahead of their own.

“I pray today that all of you will be accused—at some point of your life—of being a part of those who protest injustice in the name of love and in the name of truth,” said Barber, a prominent civil rights advocate who’s president of the North Carolina NAACP and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C. “I, in fact, hope that this 149th graduation inducts you into the society of those past and present who recognize that in every generation, somebody has to be charged for standing up for justice.”

A wave of applause

Barber, himself a 2003 graduate of Drew Theological School, spoke to more than 500 graduates of the University, its Caspersen School of Graduate Studies and seminary, who were cheered on by thousands of parents, siblings, relatives and friends who gathered at the Simon Forum and Athletic Center.

The crowd applauded heartily as the minister spoke and the applause rose to a crescendo as he closed his address, which celebrated the 150th anniversary of the founding of Drew as a seminary in 1867.

“Every generation must have moral defibrillators who recognize when the nation has a heart problem, who recognize that we are suffering from a moral arrhythmia and choose to live their lives in non-violent methods to shock the heart and soul of this nation,” Barber said. “We must have moral dreamers who refuse to give in to the nightmarish realities and the ugliness of injustice, but instead they continue to believe and live subversive dreams rooted in God’s power to revive, redeem and resurrect us from any valley of injustice at any moment of social misery.”

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Julia Wolfe was Drew’s Artist-in-Residence this year.

A glorious feeling

Drew’s 149th annual commencement also featured music from Drew Chorale, the singing of the school’s alma mater and addresses from President MaryAnn Baenninger, graduates Gianna Minogue and Micah Campbell and composer Julia Wolfe, a Pulitzer Prize winner who served as Drew’s Artist-in-Residence this year.

Wolfe, on the heels of a busy semester at Drew, reflected on how she “stumbled” into music composition in her first year as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan.

“I was the most beginning person in the class. It didn’t matter, the professor explained, because what mattered was how far we developed from where we began,” Wolfe said. “I was fascinated by this idea. Challenged by it.

“Within a few weeks, I was hooked on writing music. I spent most of my free time at a piano, singing and scribbling down ideas. I stumbled my way through, tripping over my feet, fueled by inspiration and some kind of half crazy blind faith. It was a glorious feeling.”

Get up, persevere, break through

Further reflecting on that seminal experience, which triggered a lifelong passion for composition, Wolfe said that “many times the tasks that seem impossible, intimidating or overwhelming are the things that challenge us and change us most deeply.

“You don’t need to be the most knowledgeable person in the class,” she added. “You don’t need to be the smartest person in the room. You don’t need to be the most talented person in the bunch. The ability to get up when you fall, to persevere when you feel inadequate, to experience the joy of breaking through to new territory—that allows for true learning and that allows for true success.”

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President MaryAnn Baenninger tells graduates, ‘You will always be a part of what makes Drew shine.’

Another highlight of commencement was Baenninger recognizing the teachers of the year. Hilary Kalagher earned the President’s Award for Teaching in the College of Liberal Arts, Kimberly Rhodes was named the Thomas H. Kean Scholar/Mentor of the Year at Caspersen and Christopher Boesel became the Theological School Scholar/Teacher of the Year. All three were feted with quotes from students that described their exceptional dedication and mentorship.

Toward the end of the ceremony, Baenninger congratulated the hundreds of graduates, wished them luck and assured them that they were prepared for a life of community building, learning and making the world a better place.

“Today is not goodbye; it is farewell until we meet again,” she added. “And you will always be a part of what makes Drew shine.”

Here’s a closer look at 2017 Commencement.