Large crowd braves winds to celebrate UD's 164th Commencement
4:50 p.m., May 25, 2013--On a morning marked by wispy clouds in a blue sky, more than 21,000 people -- graduates and their families and friends -- braved gale force winds to celebrate the University of Delaware’s 164th Commencement, held Saturday, May 25, at Delaware Stadium.
The Commencement speaker, global humanitarian Dr. Paul Farmer, told 3,600 graduating members of the Class of 2013 that empathy can work with reason to alleviate human suffering at home and in some of the world’s poorest countries.
Popcorn and probability
Farmer noted that working in places like Haiti and Rwanda led to the realization that the social and cultural singularity of each time and place share the same similarities in terms of the patients and their needs.
“There might be cases of AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, road trauma and cancer, but the differences between the patients are less than you might think,” Farmer said. “The chest X-rays look the same, as do the lab results; the physical examination of these patients is the same from one place to another.”
The difference, Farmer said, is that besides their individual sufferings, patients also are faced with the stigma of malnutrition caused by not having enough to eat.
“Even the aspirations of our patients -- to feel better, to be cured, to be heard, for their family members and getting back to work or returning to school -- they are all strikingly the same,” Farmer said. “Too many of these aspirations are dashed, not only by serious illness, but by poverty.”
Farmer also noted, in a serious and humorous way, that he has identified a new disease he has termed Empathy Deficit Disorder, or EDD, and that he also has the formula for its cure.
“Curing EDD among leaders, which many among you will become, will help untold millions,” Farmer said. “This Empathy Deficit Disorder may be averted or cured as long as our efforts are supported with a broad-based coalition of people who are able to link empathy with reason.”
Farmer also noted that while empathy is seen as an unstable emotion, like pity or compassion, the world and tomorrow’s leaders graduating today from places like UD can transform these emotions into something more enduring.
“Can a spark of empathy once ignited, however briefly, lead to reasoned discussions and the compassionate qualities that might transform our world, including the precincts that we live in?” Farmer asked. “I think I can answer that with an emphatic yes.”
Farmer said the idea of empathy beginning with the actions of a few courageous individuals fighting systems based on fear and intimidation is seen in the case of Ryan White, who died of AIDS in 1990, after a long and sometimes lonely struggle for basic human rights denied him due to the social stigma of his illness at a time when fear and ignorance about AIDS ran high.
“He was shunned by his peers and prevented from returning to school, and in church, nobody would touch his outstretched hand during the Rite of Peace,” Farmer said. “Ryan and his mother, Jeanne Elaine Hale, decided to do something different they decided to sue the local school board.”
Farmer noted that rock star Elton John also stepped up to help White and his mother, and the singer was present when Ryan died on March 29, 1990, in Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.
In the last 30 years, medical science has given us a decent treatment for AIDS, Farmer said, adding that the federal Ryan White Care Act today administers more than $2 billion annually to AIDS sufferers, including many low income persons.
“The United States is the largest funder of AIDS treatment in Africa today,” Farmer said. “As a doctor and an American, I thank you.”
President Harker lauds ‘grit’
University President Patrick Harker extended a Blue Hen welcome to the Class of 2013 and their guests on what he described as “a great day to graduate.”
“I’d like to acknowledge the families and friends, faculty and administrators who’ve gathered this morning to send these graduates out into the world,” Harker said. “I’m so glad you could all join us on this very special day.”
Citing the talent, ambition, passion and commitment that made the day possible, Harker also lauded the graduates for a rather special quality of character displayed in meeting both everyday and extraordinary challenges in and out of the classroom.
“When I was a boy growing up in a town next door to Camden, N.J., I went around the neighborhoods selling a magazine called Grit,” Harker said. “Maybe that’s why I like the word so much, and what it describes.”
Closely akin to perseverance, Harked said grit makes achievement doable in the face of difficulties, failure or opposition.
“Grit is unyielding courage in the face of hardship and firmness of mind or spirit,” Harker said “While being gifted might get you the football, being gritty is what gets you and it into the end zone.”
Harker also praised grit displayed by UD students, including environmental studies major Bryan Stephan, who was injured in a windsurfing accident last fall.
The Fairfield, Conn., native suffered broken hip and arm among several broken bones, yet kept up his coursework from his hospital bed and later as he recuperated at home.
“He was in constant communication with his professors and classmates, and he compiled a maximum course load of 17 credits and a 3.65 grade point average,” Harker said. “That’s pretty gritty.”
Shelby Johantgen, an early childhood major from Wayne, Pa., and her fiancé Griffin Becker, a biology and exercise major from Jenkintown, Pa., had their daughter, Cadence, three years ago. Seven months after giving birth, Shelby was back as a full-time student, while caring for her infant then toddler.
“It could have come apart. It didn’t,” Harker said. “Shelby just completed her student teaching, and Griffin is starting medical school in the fall. Cadence turns 3 next month, and Shelby and Griffin are getting married this summer.”
Hong Yin, a food and agribusiness marketing and management major and operations management major from China, competed a total of five majors and minors in just four years.
“Hong came to UD with very little English and attended the English Language Institute to learn it,” Harker said. “While she knows there’s a distinct educational advantage in completing so many courses of study, she loaded herself up with classes for another reason just as practical she wanted to meet people. That’s grit.”
Alexandra Bayles, a Goldwater Scholar and Honors Program student in chemical engineering from Millersville, Md., will begin a doctoral program at the University of California Santa Barbara after graduating.
Co-author of high-impact papers in her field, first author on a paper now in the manuscript stage, Bayles is listed as co-inventor on two Procter and Gamble patents and received a $40,000 grant from the company for lab equipment needed for her experiments.
“If all this seems terrifically gifted, but not necessarily gritty, consider that less than 20 percent of chemical engineers working today are women,” Harker said. “Alexandra will need some true grit, and she’s got it in spades.”
Michael Rowley, an Honors student from Lancaster, Pa., and a double major in exercise science and biology, with a minor in dance, has been to New Orleans every summer while at UD to teach dancing to children displaced by Hurricane Katrina. “I think we could all borrow a little grit from those kids,” Harker said.
Harker also noted the capstone service contributions of Matthew Klixbull, Devin Prage, Daniel Evans, Chris Lenoard, Matthew Durst and Michael Pfeiffer, all mechanical engineering students.
“They worked with the Department of Physical Therapy and Yes U Can to retrofit a recumbent bicycle so that people with disabilities can use it,” Harker said. “This means they don’t have to sacrifice physical activity, and they can feel the vitality they did before their mobility was compromised.”
Greek grit came in the volunteerism of 18 Theta Chi brothers who drove up to Manahawkin, N.J., four days after Hurricane Sandy to help rebuild that devastated community.
Harker also praised Farmer, founding director of Partners in Health, for helping to establish clinics in a dozen countries serving the world’s poorest people.
In closing, Harker reminded members of the Class of 2013 to be firm of mind and spirit and determined to make the future they want for themselves and others.
“You need this grit. At some point, I promise, you’ll need it,” Harker said. “Remember that you have a limitless reservoir inside you. Dig deep and go strong.”
Elizabeth Askins, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences from Greer, S.C., sang The Star-Spangled Banner.
Anna D’Alessio, a senior in the College of Engineering from Damestown, Md., and Scott Scheinberg, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, presented the 2013 senior class gift.
A procession of alumni helped open Commencement and Darelle Lake Riabov, president of the University of Delaware Alumni Association, lauded the new graduates and urged them to stay involved with the University. Riabov also led the newest Blue Hens in attaching UD Alumni Association pins to their hoods and hats as part of the traditional pinning ceremony.
Thoughts from the Class of 2013
Lisa McQuade, a medical laboratory science major from Galloway, N.J., said of Commencement day, “It’s great. It has been such a long journey, and the 32 people in my class worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., each day. The whole medical science laboratory is just like having a big family.”
Branden Smith, an exercise science major from Sykesville, Md., remarked on the good memories of the many friends he met during his time at UD. “My teachers were always helpful. They wanted us to learn and would help in any possible way.”
Michael Wherry, a mechanical engineering major from Bear, Del., said, “I’m ready to go out into the real world.” His favorite experience at UD was participating in the senior design program in mechanical engineering; he worked in a company lab where he got to design and make a product from scratch.
Pretti Anday, a computer science major from Walnut Creek, Calif., said she was thankful for having professors who were very helpful and for the friends she made at UD.
Sarah Munsell, an elementary education major from Wilmington, Del., said, “The time went by really fast. The thing I enjoyed the most was student teaching and the helpful faculty members.”
Jana Brown, an elementary education major from Whitehouse Station, N.J., said, “It’s been a bit nerve-racking, but it’s a relief to be done. I enjoyed my study abroad experience in Ghana, something that would not have happened except at UD.”
Nicole Pomerico, an elementary education major from Freeport, N.Y., said, “ This is an exciting day. It’s beautiful outside, and we are celebrating the victories we made over the last four years.”
Greg Saltzman, an elementary education major from Commack, N.Y., said, “The people at UD are really amazing. I met friends the first year I was here, and I have gathered more each year.”
Alyssa Mayer, an elementary education major from Sussex, N.J., said, “We can finally celebrate being successful after working during the last four years. The thing I enjoyed most was playing rugby at UD. The friends I made here are awesome.”
Related stories and resources
• Honorary degrees were presented to Paul Farmer, Charles F. Hummel and Chongshi Zhu.
• Read the text of Paul Farmer's Commencement address.
• Read the text of Patrick Harker's Commencement address.
• Fourteen members of the Class of 2013 were honored as high index seniors, with perfect grade point averages.
• A doctoral hooding ceremony was held Friday evening on The Green.
• Follow the conversation on social media by checking out UD's Storify page.
• National Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, a member of the Class of 2013, spoke at the Department of Political Science and International Relations Convocation.
• The UD Honors Program held a celebratory breakfast on Friday.
Article by Jerry Rhodes
Photos by Evan Krape, Mark Campbell and Doug Baker