Reaching the pinnacle in the midst of pandemic
Photos by Evan Krape and Maria Errico May 26, 2022
UD celebrates students’ new doctorates at Hooding Ceremony
Beneath the large white tent pitched on the University of Delaware’s Green, seven family members waited to see one doctor.
Their new doctor, that is — Bader Jarai, chemical engineer. They waited with hundreds of others in that tent, all eager to see the doctoral hood placed around the necks of their loved ones during UD’s Doctoral Hooding Ceremony and Graduate College Convocation, held Thursday afternoon, May 26.
“I’m absolutely thrilled that we have so many of your families and friends here to share in this special moment,” said UD President Dennis Assanis. “To all of them, I want to say ‘thank you,’ because your support and encouragement of our doctoral candidates has been absolutely essential to their success.”
The Hooding Ceremony honored all who received their doctoral degrees from the summer of 2021 through this spring, a total of 331 degrees to students representing 29 countries. A total of 230 students were expected at Thursday’s ceremony.
Some worked for six or seven years to attain the degree. All completed their work during the COVID-19 pandemic, facing many unexpected difficulties.
“Those of you who are receiving doctoral degrees today have risen to the greatest challenges of our times,” said Lou Rossi, dean of UD’s Graduate College.
“We are facing problems and conflicts that are increasingly complex,” he said. “They are difficult to understand and difficult to explain to others. New challenges require new ideas. They require people with special expertise and preparation to create new knowledge and discoveries that will make this world a better place for all of us.”
Assanis urged all of the graduates to celebrate, but also to remember the responsibility the achievement brings with it.
“You are now leaders in the never-ending quest to increase human understanding,” he said. “Your creation of knowledge finds its highest purpose when it enriches lives, strengthens communities and helps us build a better world.”
The world’s constant need for new ideas and solutions was never more apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Science has helped us understand the emergence and spread of this disease,” Assanis said. “And science has informed us of the best ways to protect ourselves through our behaviors and the development of safe and effective vaccines.
“Yet some of the biggest challenges associated with the pandemic have been related to politics and public policy, education and economics, communications and community service. It has taken all of these fields and more, all working together, to mount an effective response to the global pandemic.”
Kathy Matt, dean of the College of Health Sciences, evoked strong applause when she noted that many students had assisted with vaccination and testing clinics at UD and in underserved communities in the area.
And Gary Henry, dean of the College of Education and Human Development, made stirring reference to the importance of elementary school teachers, including those slain in the Uvalde, Texas, mass shooting on May 24.
“It’s a sad reminder of the importance of teachers, how important they are and will be in the coming days, weeks and years,” he said.
Evidence-based solutions — those built on research and careful analysis — are the sort of challenges those with a doctoral discipline are trained to address.
The doctoral hood — UD’s is about four feet long — is placed around the neck of a student by someone who already has attained the doctorate, often the student’s adviser. It is symbolic of the passage of knowledge from one generation of scholar to the next and a testament that the student has attained the highest academic degree possible. Jarai’s hood was placed by his adviser, Catherine Fromen, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.
Jarai’s parents had wanted to be there to witness this event, said his cousin, Alia Suqi. But they had to remain in Palestine, unable to get visas to make the trip.
Instead, his cheering section included his aunt, Mariam Suqi, who lives in New Jersey and wore traditional Palestinian garb, his uncle, Khaled Jarai, and cousins Isa, Salah and Samy Suqi and Joseph Rush.
“We’re so happy for him,” Alia said. “He is such a hard-working guy.”
As he walked across the platform, a comment he submitted was read aloud.
“I dedicate this moment to my family for all their sacrifices and I can’t wait to visit Palestine and see them after many years away from home.”
Jarai’s is one of hundreds of success stories, each representing years of challenging research, analysis, reading, thinking, writing, experimenting. The work is intense, demanding keen focus, resilience and a great deal of support.
“This day — under any circumstance — is a reason to celebrate,” said Provost Robin Morgan, who is about to retire after 37 years of service to UD. “It recognizes decisions made, years and years of sacrifice, and a devotion to complete commitment and hard work.”
Istiaque Alam traveled from Oregon, where he now works for Intel, to receive his doctorate in mechanical engineering. With him were his wife, Tasmiah Rawnuck, and daughter, Inaya, 1½ years old.
A native of Bangladesh and the first in his family to earn a college degree, he learned of the University of Delaware from a professor in his home country.
“This was not easy,” he said. “There was a lot of pressure and frustration. But my wife supported me a lot and my adviser, David Burris, is one of the reasons I am where I am now. He helped me build a network of professionals so I didn’t have to struggle for job offers.”
UD offers 60 doctoral and 145 master’s degree programs, including 16 dual degree programs, 14 interdisciplinary programs and 20 online programs.
This year’s Hooding Ceremony also included UD’s first Graduate College Convocation. The Graduate College is three years old and Thursday its first cohort of students earned their master’s degree from that college.
“I’m super proud of them for finishing during the pandemic,” said Rich Braun, founding director of the Master of Science in Data Science program, which is housed in the Grad College.
“I know my research has been uplifted by having these master’s students help us,” said Braun, who develops mathematical models of tear-film dynamics that are useful to ophthalmologists and optometrists, especially for understanding dry eye conditions. “We did things we would not have done otherwise.”
For example, Braun said, students helped automate some of the processes and data extraction, which increased the number of cases his team could study from a few dozen to hundreds.
Among the charming traditions of UD’s Hooding Ceremony are the bagpipe processional — led this year by pipers Mark Hurm and Russell Johnstone — and the personal comments students submit to be read as they cross the platform.
A few samples of comments read Thursday include:
“Words to live by: Every person you meet knows something you don’t, so learn from them. Go after the dreams that scare you the most. Do what makes you happy.” – Shaili Patel, biological sciences
“Once you have a scientific idea in mind, don’t wait. Try it as soon as possible! Cooperation is becoming more and more important to doing a great job.” – Yong Yuan, chemical engineering
“This moment embodies all those previous moments when I chose to keep working and think deeper, empowered by a community of persistent support.” – Kiersten Elaine Mounce, art history
“Today I close a chapter of my life, years of school and open a new one as a scientist and paying more bills, as I can no longer defer my student loans.” – Devan Elizabeth Kerecman, chemistry and biochemistry
“White Clay Creek State Park was critical to helping me manage the stress of graduate school. Please consider supporting it for future students.” – Luke Ralph Nigro, mechanical engineering
“This was hard. I learned a lot about humility and perseverance and that good support is invaluable. This had been my dream and I am grateful. – Melanie Anne Horning, nursing science
“Wish I’d done this 30 years ago, but 4 kids, 1 grandchild, 6 moves, 21 farm animals and 4 careers later, I am super happy here today. Festina Lente! – Susan Grasso, public policy and administration
Seven award winners were announced Thursday, including one faculty award and six dissertation prizes:
Joshua Zide, professor of materials science and engineering, winner of the 2022 Outstanding Doctoral Advising and Mentoring Award
Kristen Nassif, Wilbur Owen Sypherd Dissertation Prize in Humanities
Nancy Rios-Contreras, George Herbert Ryden Dissertation Prize in the Social Sciences
Lin Shi, Allan P. Colburn Dissertation Prize in Engineering and Mathematical Sciences
Utkarsh Bajpai, Theodore Wolf Dissertation Prize in Physical and Life Sciences
Ginnie Sawyer-Morris, Dan Rich Dissertation Prize
Juniper Lake, Interdisciplinary Research Dissertation Prize