Graduation ‘surreal’ for UD seniors
Former Gov. Jack Markell may not be in charge of the First State anymore, but he charged the University of Delaware’s Class of 2017 with two primary responsibilities on Saturday: not to let hateful speech stand and to actively cultivate an appreciation for diversity.
He said that when hate speech occurs, freedom of speech doesn’t just allow others to respond – it calls on them to do so. It also calls on people to stand up for tolerance, which means respecting those whose views you don’t necessarily agree with, he said.
“It’s true that this is a free country, and thank God that it is, but it’s only free because generations of Americans went before us and stood up to discrimination,
defended the marginalized and exercised their own freedom of speech to respond to hate,” Markell said.
Markell gave the address at UD’s 168th commencement, held at Delaware Stadium, where the university conferred 5,883 undergraduate and graduate degrees. An estimated 20,000 people attended.
A lifelong Newarker and graduate of Newark High School, Markell holds an undergraduate degree in economics and development studies from Brown University and an MBA from the University of Chicago. After a career in the private sector, including a top leadership position at Nextel, Markell served three consecutive terms as state treasurer and then was elected to governor in 2008. His final term ended earlier this year.
Markell said his father taught at UD for 35 years and his wife Carla, is UD alum, so he has a real appreciation and love for the school. As governor, he said, he learned first-hand how tightly the future of the state and the condition of the university are linked, which is why he encouraged the graduates on Saturday to continue to fight social injustice and do what’s right.
“Let that be your legacy,” Markell said.
Out of all the degrees awarded Saturday, 2,764 were to students who live in Delaware, like health behavioral science majors Samara Gayle from Newark and Sierra Riley from New Castle. Both women have an eye toward their future – Riley plans to get a master’s degree in healthcare administration and Gayle hopes to be a personal trainer – but seemed to be struggling on Saturday to accept the present.
“It’s surreal,” Riley said. “It’s about to be over.”
“[College] is gone in a blip,” Gayle added. “It’s almost unbelievable we won’t be coming back.”
Gayle said her favorite memories from UD are the university-sponsored parties at Trabant University Center, while Riley said she will never forget studying abroad in Spain. But those experiences, they admitted, would mean nothing without the students, professors and employees who made them memorable.
They both agreed one of the things about UD they’ll miss the most is the tightknit feel of the campus and family-like atmosphere.
“You could always be sure to run into someone you knew at some point during the day,” Gayle said.
Graduation day had also not yet sunk in for friends Natasha Barbosa from Georgetown, Logan Ferry from Bethany Beach and Laura Thronton-Smith from Rye, N.Y., who swapped stories in between smiling for pictures and waving to their families in the crowd on Saturday.
“It feels like a dream almost,” Barbosa said.
Barbosa lived in the Dickinson dorm her freshman year, and recalled a time when the power went out due to a storm. She said all the students on her floor hung out and bonded until the lights came back on, and it was the most fun she had that year.
“And now that’s completely gone,” she said. “It’s insane I can’t even go back there.”
UD closed both Rodney and Dickinson residence halls to students in May 2015. The city of Newark is in talks to purchase the Rodney site on Hillside Road for use as a stormwater pond.
The women joked they will miss getting UD alerts, which is the university’s primary emergency notification tool that sends messages to students about severe weather, safety concerns and crimes in the area. For some reason, they said, they received tons of these calls, texts and emails during their sophomore year.
Barbosa said UD’s campus is smaller than people think and she’s made a lot of really good friends over the years who she will miss seeing every day. She admitted she was crying the night before Saturday’s graduation ceremony.
“I’m not going to be in walking distance of my friends,” she said.
But Thronton-Smith assured her everything would be alright.
“I’m not worried about losing touch with you guys at all,” she said.
“Your family doesn’t have to be blood, they can be the people you meet,” Ferry added.
Barbosa, who studied sociology, will be applying to graduate schools to get her master’s degree and hopefully become a school counselor, while Ferry will be looking for a high school English teaching job while pursuing her masters at Wilmington University. Thronton-Smith studied psychology and plans to look for a job where she can work with children.
“It’s so cliché that UD has given me the best four years I could ask for, but it’s true,” Ferry said, and Barbosa nodded.
“I’m going to miss this place more than I thought,” Barbosa said.
Christopher Merken, a political science major from Radnor, Pa., described graduation as bittersweet.
“It’s the end of an era. It’s the end of fun for me,” he said.
Merken will start law school at Villanova University in the fall and said he will have to “buckle down” and get serious about his future. He admitted he had a lot of good times at UD, but his favorite memory is when he interned at the White House with then-Vice President Joe Biden, who is also a UD alum.
Now a graduate, Merken said he hopes the next batch of incoming freshman manage their time well and put their education first, something he made sure to always do.
“I studied a lot, and it paid off,” he said.
Shahin Afshar, an international relations major from Newark, said he, too, studied hard and is proud of his achievements. Like Merken, he said he’s also sad this part of his life has ended, but offered some optimism Saturday to lighten the mood. He said graduation may be the end of one chapter, it is also the beginning of another.
“It might have less fun, but eventually you’ll get to achieve great things,” Afshar said.
He said he’s enjoyed meeting new friends and being part of the only class to attend UD under the leadership of three different presidents: Patrick Harker, Nancy Targett and now Dennis Assanis.
“Every day at UD was a memory,” Afshar said.
While Saturday was a day of many lasts for the Class of 2017, it was also Assanis’ first time addressing a graduating class since taking over as UD’s president in July.
He told the students seated before him to change the world by making the world look more like UD – a place of “constant learning, exploration and discovery.”
“It can be a place that celebrates open dialogue and the free exchange of ideas; a place where we can be respectful and civil, even when we disagree with each other. It can be a place where knowledge finds its highest purpose when it enriches lives and strengthens our society for the benefit of all,” Assanis said.
In order to do this, they’ll need to work together as a community — one that brings together a wide range of expertise and perspective, he said, adding that only through cooperation and collaboration will members of the Class of 2017 be able to address the complex challenges they’ll face in their careers and in society.
He told the students to be innovators and entrepreneurs and encouraged them to see obstacles as opportunities, to think of answers instead of excuses and to imagine the possibilities instead of the limitations.
“I want you to ask yourself every day, ‘How can I use my talents, my skills, my relationships, my creativity to help solve a problem?’ Find those answers, in whatever field you pursue, and you will be an innovator and an entrepreneur,” Assanis said.
“The world can be a better place. You can make it better. You can make the world more like the University of Delaware,” he added. “I am extremely optimistic about the future knowing that our Class of 2017 will be out there changing the world.”
University of Delaware President Dennis Assanis addresses graduates Saturday morning.
University of Delaware graduates celebrate during Saturday’s commencement.