May 2019 – Speakers at Drew University’s 2019 Commencement encouraged graduates to celebrate who they’ve become, actively engage in the world and enjoy the fruits of it without sweating the details.
Paraphrasing a Jane Kenyon poem, University President MaryAnn Baenninger said, “See the pears in your life. Contemplate them. Savor them. All the other stuff is simply just not as important in the moment.”
Looking back on years “filled with opportunities to grow, to find ourselves, make mistakes and learn,” student speaker Alina Qasim said, “I want all of you to remember who you were when you entered Drew and who you are now. The person you are now is capable of so much more and school is the reason for that.”
Former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman went further, saying that the liberal arts education that the students received gave them the skills they need to help solve vexing problems such as global climate change, gun violence, income inequality, prejudice and intolerance.
“You learned how to collect facts. You also learned how to learn effectively and how to think critically,” said Whitman, who also led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. “Those two things—learning effectively and thinking critically—are absolutely central to your ability to succeed in how to make a difference in the world. As the author Joyce Carol Oates put it once, ‘At a time when politics deals in distortions and half-truths, truth is to be found in the liberal arts.’”
The speakers addressed some 468 graduates from Drew’s College of Liberal Arts, Theological School and Caspersen School of Graduate Studies who gathered inside of Simon Forum with about 3,100 well-wishers, including parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, professors, undergraduates, administrators and staffers.
The ceremony featured many traditions, including a performance by Drew Chorale and a bagpipe and drum duo that led a procession of graduates into the building. There were unique moments as well, such as Barbara Morrison earning a master of letters from Caspersen at the age of 81. Also, Ida Behreini, who’s legally blind, received her bachelor’s in computer science after crossing the stage with her guide dog, Evie.
This year’s honorary degree recipients were Dean Criares C’85, a longtime trustee who’s stepping down as chair after a productive seven years, and Karen Oliveto C’80, G’91,’02, the first openly gay person elected bishop of the United Methodist Church.
Oliveto fondly recalled her days in The Forest and credited Drew with teaching her the value of engaging in a community.
“This community, with its rich diversity of nationalities, races, political persuasions, cultures, sexual orientation, gender identities and abilities, helped me find my voice, taught me how to be an activist and helped me grow into the person and leader I am today,” she said. “Drew taught me how to live my life out loud, bringing all of who I am into the places where I am called to be. And that has made all the difference.”
Turning her attention to the graduates, Oliveto added, “Don’t hold back from being the person you were meant to be because who you are is vital to the work that you are called to do. You were meant to be a part of this world, created as a unique, one-of-a-kind being never seen before, making a contribution no one else can. Your life’s worth rests on your willingness to show up, to speak out, to offer righteous love and make justice visible.”
A second student speaker, Erica Ramirez, said she’d honor the opportunities she was afforded at the Theological School by not taking the world for granted or simply phoning it in.
“I plan instead to show up, to invest myself, to bring a full set of my skills and passion to the forms of life, really broadly construed, that I wish to remain since without my care they may not,” said Ramirez, who earned a doctor of philosophy.
Beyond her words of encouragement to grads, President Baenninger handed out teacher of the year awards to Marie-Pascale Pieretti, a professor of French at the College of Liberal Arts; Angella Pak Son, an associate professor of psychology and religion at the Theological School; and Edward Baring, an associate professor of history at Caspersen.
Reflecting on the members of the Class of 2019, Baenninger said it was joy to get to know them and see them support each other and learn from one another.
“We will miss you profoundly,” she added. “We have high hopes for you and absolutely no doubt that they will be realized.”