Soledad O'Brien speaks at UD's 163rd Commencement.

Commencement 2012

O'Brien tells grads to understand, appreciate differences among people

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3:53 p.m., May 26, 2012--As the weather changed from a cloudy canopy to brilliant sunshine, some 22,000 families, friends and graduates gathered on Saturday, May 26, at Delaware Stadium to salute the Class of 2012 during the 163rd Commencement of the University of Delaware.

Commencement speaker Soledad O’Brien, special correspondent and anchor for the CNN morning show Starting Point, urged the newest Blue Hens to seek out and listen to the stories of others, as a means of understanding and appreciating how sharing individual differences makes America great as a nation.

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Beginning her talk in a lighthearted manner, O’Brien reminded the graduates that they are surrounded by a support system comprised of brothers, sisters, parents and friends. 

“I know that parents are looking down on a sea of graduates, and they see their baby who is about to fly out of the nest into the real world,” O’Brien said. “Fortunately, parents, you can rest a little bit. They are not leaving, even if they have jobs. The food is better, it’s not expensive and they can borrow the car. They are moving back in with you.”

O’Brien drew on the family history of her immigrant parents to explain why she does not give advice when giving commencement talks.

“For a story on Mother’s Day, a magazine editor asked me what the best advice my mother ever gave me was,” O’Brien said. "When I told them my mother’s simple advice was ‘most people are idiots,’ the editor said, ‘we will call you back.' She never did.”

While the advice from a woman who O’Brien described as being a "very tough nut and not a warm and fuzzy mom,” is practical and humorous, the history behind this motherly wisdom belies a tale of overcoming ethnic and racial barriers faced by her parents in the 1950s.

Her parents, O’Brien said, spent their lives ignoring misguided advice, especially as a mixed race couple in at a time when interracial dating was frowned upon and illegal in the state of Maryland where they lived.

“They wanted to go on a date, but it was 1958 and it was Baltimore and interracial dating could get you killed,” O’Brien said. “When they went into a restaurant, my father, who was Australian, was told he could come in, but not my mother, who was a black woman from Cuba, and most certainly, they could not come in together.” 

O'Brien’s parents married anyway, in Washington D.C., and returned to Maryland, where they lived "illegally" as a couple, ignoring the advice of friends who warned them not to have children "because interracial kids would never find a place in this world.” 

“I’m number five of six children. My parents were terrible listeners every step of the way,” O'Brien said. “They knew they were on the right side of history.”

It was out of this history that O’Brien, a Harvard University graduate, decided to pursue a career as a journalist.

“I became a reporter because I wanted to tell stories about people like my mother and father,” O’Brien said. “I wanted to asked the tough questions and understand people’s lives and their perspectives.”

O’Brien described her job as trying to understand the lives of others, the choices they made, their dreams, their goals and their hopes and fears, all this against the advice of others who said such lives didn’t really matter all that much.

“I did a documentary on coal miners in West Virginia and female rescue workers at Ground Zero, and post-Katrina New Orleans and Haiti,” O'Brien said. “I ignored their advice and I learned a very important lesson — we all have a shared humanity. We all want the same thing.”

To make that “better” America that her mother believed in, O’Brien urged the graduates to find out about other people and where they came from and why it is important to recognize these differences.

“We better understand that we are just part of a bigger whole and not divided by political labels or gender or race, but are stronger as a nation because of what binds us,” O’Brien said. “Those differences are our heritage. Identities do matter and we can all be proud that we are here, together.”

President Harker 

Earlier in the ceremony, UD President Patrick Harker welcomed the graduates and their families and friends, and lauded the celebrants on a job well done.

“Good morning, and congratulations to the Class of 2012,” Harker said. “You did it!”

In a nod to Mark Zuckerberg, whose social media giant Facebook went public on May 17, resulting in the third biggest initial public stock offering ever, Harker said that success comes in many forms and can also be built on lifetimes of personal achievements and service to others.

“I started thinking a couple of weeks ago about what I wanted to share with you today — something about leaving a legacy,” Harker said. “We’re all part of Mark Zuckerberg’s legacy, but world domination isn’t the only worthwhile legacy.” 

Harker suggested that the newest Blue Hens emulate the legacies of perseverance, intellectual curiosity, engagement, entrepreneurship and service demonstrated by many of their fellow classmates. 

For perseverance, Harker cited the determination of anthropology major Elanor Sonderman, a student in the College of Arts and Sciences, who battled back from injuries suffered after being hit by a car in December. 

“From her hospital bed, she sent word to professors that she wanted to finish her coursework and needed to start her grad school applications,” Harker said. “This semester, she balanced a full course load, extra-curriculars, and service hours … against a brutal physical therapy regimen. Incredibly, Elanor’s graduating on time today, and she’s been accepted into a Ph.D. program this fall.”

Legacies also can be a collective achievement, including the 2,500 students who danced and sweated nonstop for 12 hours while raising $500,000 to help find a cure for childhood cancer, Harker said. 

“Everyone connected to UDance was a hero to someone that day,” Harker said. “Everyone who danced left a legacy.” 

Although they may not receive media attention, students leave their own personal legacy when they tackle academic challenges they previously failed, stick it out on a tough job, or remain open to new ideas, Harker said. 

“Your path didn’t start at UD, and it won’t end here,” Harker said. “Your life is a continuum, with plenty of chances to be the person you want to be and — fortunately for all of us — plenty of second chances, too.”

In welcoming the graduates as the newest Blue Hens, Harker also urged the Class of 2012 to work hard at creating a legacy that future generations of students at home and abroad can build on. 

“Be kind, be gracious, be interested, be honest, be a hard worker and a good friend. Be a little daring,” Harker said. “If you leave your section of the world at least as good as when you got there, you’ve left a pretty solid legacy.”

Keith Schwartz, a senior in the College of Arts and Science sang "The Star Spangled Banner" to an appreciative crowd. The University of Delaware alma mater was sung by senior members of the University’s a cappella singing groups and the UD Chorale. 

Kevin Collins and Christopher McElwee presented Harker with the Senior Class gift -- more than $21,000 in support of 122 different areas of campus, ranging from accounting and nursing to Greek life and athletics. Gifts from the class were matched by UD alumnus and trustee Kenneth C.Whitney.

Darelle Lake Riabov, president of the University of Delaware Alumni Association, congratulated the new graduates and encouraged them to stay involved with the University. She then led the new graduates through the tradition of the pinning ceremony as they attached Alumni Association pins to their hoods or robes.

Reflections from the Class of 2012

Nicole Frerichs, a medical technology major from Hockessin, Del., described graduating as being “kind of surreal. It’s been a long time coming, but it feels like I was just a freshman not long ago.” Frerichs will be working at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia before going on to medical school. 

Kaitlyn Hajen, a medical technology major from Wilmington, Del., will be working in the general laboratory at Christiana Hospital. “This is pretty awesome and worth waiting for. I really enjoyed my music elective classes, especially Schola Cantorum and concert choir.”

Eddie Qian, a chemical engineering major from Germantown, Md., said, “It’s bittersweet. I’m happy to be done and have my friends here with me today, but I’m going to miss all of this.” Next for Qian is medical school at New York University.

Tracie Ervin, an environmental engineering major from Ellicott City, Md., who is graduating with her fiancé, who she met during her freshman year, said, “I’m very excited and kind of nervous. I plan to work at ENVIRON, in New Jersey, as an engineering associate. I really appreciated participating in undergraduate research at UD and meeting new people and having new experiences.” 

Anne Olivero, an early childhood education major from Carmel, N.Y., who plans to go on to grad school, said, “It feels good to be finished. My best memory about UD is the friends I made.” 

Molly Coyne, an early childhood education major from Havertown, Pa., said, “I don’t think it’s really hit me yet, that I’m done. The best part of attending UD was getting involved in a lot of groups and meeting different people who really shaped my experience here.”

Andrew Radmer, a statistics major from Clarksville, Md., said, “It’s kind of rewarding that the last four years have really meant something. I really enjoyed the social life on campus.”

Ryan Brucker, a graduate from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, hopes to apply to the New Jersey State Police or to start his own business. “I am really proud to be a college graduate and celebrate this with my family and friends. I’m really proud of all the people I am graduating with today.”

Other Commencement stories

Honorary degrees were conferred during Commencement.

Members of the Class of 2012 who achieved the highest grade point index were honored during Commencement.

Alumni delegates are an important part of Commencement.

UD held a doctoral hooding ceremony Friday.

The Honors Program held a breakfast Friday.

For additional Commencement photos, see UD in Photos.

To watch a podcast of the Commencement ceremony, click here.

Article by Jerry Rhodes

Video by University Media Services

Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson, Evan Krape, Ambre Alexander, Kevin Quinlan, Doug Baker, Duane Perry, Lane McLaughlin

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