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2018 Charleston Commencement


Thursday, May 24, 2018
Charleston Commencement, North Charleston Convention Center

Graduates, faculty members, family and friends, it is tremendous that all of us can be here together on this important day in the lives of our students.  It is a distinct pleasure to celebrate with you today.  We are here for you – you, as Webster’s present, and you, who represent the successes now and to come that we will share to inspire future students who follow in your footsteps.

Two weekends ago I was in St. Louis, where Webster University was founded in 1915, and we enjoyed our traditional commencement ceremony in a beautiful outdoor venue with over a thousand graduates from Webster’s campuses throughout our global network.  And I notice something, whether I am at the main campus in St. Louis, or here in Charleston, which Webster has also called home for over 30 years, or elsewhere in our global network:  There is a common thread among our graduates and the diverse global network of over 195,000 alumni that you have joined. 

Each of you has an individual story to tell:  How you overcame challenges and obstacles.  How you exhibited perseverance and dedication.  And how in moments of need, you leaned on the help or mentorship of others to see you through this degree.  So I would like to ask you to reflect on those pivotal movements in your personal history that led you here today.  Such moments are woven into the fabric of the human experience.  From ancient myths and legends, to the civil rights leaders of our current era – every story of achievement includes critical periods where a person’s conviction was put to the test.  All of them passed that test.  You, too, no doubt have overcome obstacles to reach the goal we celebrate today.

Maybe it was a difficult class you thought you’d never pass.  Or a financial challenge that tested your resources.  Many students experience hardship in their families and communities on their way to a degree.  There may have been times when you questioned your ability, your future direction, your values and principles when faced with tough choices.  The all too present narrative for these moments is that students give up or steps away.  They put their degree programs on hold.  Or regrettably, given the circumstances, they never finish.  But you have finished!  You earned your degree!  You interrupted any narrative that tried to interrupt you! 

What made the difference for you?

Often it is the intervention or influence of a mentor, a teacher, a family member or friend who helps us navigate the obstacles we face.  And that is why I ask you to reflect on those moments today, and to think back and make a point to thank anyone who helped you through it.  Dr. Laura McMaster, faculty member and academic advisor here at Webster, collected reflections from some of you on what today means to you, and I’d like to quote one now:  Sydney Reynolds, a graduate in our Counseling program, said:  “This means I have worked hard to meet the expectations of fabulous teachers – who had high expectations seasoned with grace and understanding.  It means I have met my goal and have been well prepared to start my career as a counselor.  It means I am part of a wonderful community of high achievers who are also seeking to be a light in the world, even when the darkness can seem overwhelming. 

What a beautiful sentiment, and a testament to our great faculty!  Incidentally, congratulations to our longtime faculty members celebrating milestones with Webster, like David Snyder, marking 15 years with Webster, and Judge Patricia Henley, who has been a faculty member here for 25 years, and Dr. David Sarnoff, who is celebrating 35 years now with Webster!

I know from what Dr. McMaster shared that some of you have handled challenges, some expected and completely unexpected:  deaths in the family, parenting young children, even premature newborns, raising children with special needs, and the ever-present balance of work, life, family and school.  It is thanks to our own drive as well as the help of those around us that we can overcome these.  We are members of a community.  None of us succeeds alone.

I am reminded of something Dr. Donald M. Suggs said at the Diversity and Inclusion conference Webster University hosts each year in St. Louis.  Dr. Suggs is the publisher of the St. Louis American newspaper, the oldest African-American newspaper in St. Louis, and he is a distinguished community leader and scholarship donor.

In February, he shared his personal story with us.  He spoke about his family who had migrated from the South to gain work in the steel mills of East Chicago.  “But for an influential middle school teacher” he said, who took him aside and urged him to continue his education.  “I remember these teachers to this day,” he said.  “They were adamant: ‘Donald, you should not go in the direction of your peers.’”  He went on to become a patron of the arts, publisher and civic leader.  He credited not his smarts – his friends were better students, he said.  But for the influence of his teachers and the values of his family, he, too, would have lived a different life.

Likewise, at the St. Louis commencement ceremony I mentioned earlier, our guest speaker shared his “but for” story.  Michael McMillan, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, told our graduates that “but for” his uncle, who encouraged him to join the Urban League as soon as he could at age 16, he would never have joined this important organization.  But for that uncle’s influence, he would never have led that Urban League’s chapter’s growth to be the top-rated chapter in the country, hosting the largest National Urban League conference ever, and playing a major role in leading – and healing – the St. Louis community through some trying times.

I believe that all of us have these “but for” moments throughout our lives.  My own life story has been diverted from the paths expected for a girl who was first in her family to graduate from college to becoming the first women president of Webster University in 40 years.  In my undergraduate college experience, I can vividly recall the professor who made me excited about learning, the professor who cared about me as a person, the mentor who encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams – and the internship experience that truly brought to life what I had learned in the classroom. 

Has that been true for you during your program at Webster?  I trust and hope but for Webster – our faculty, staff, fellow students – the challenges you faced and the obstacles that tested your resolve were overcome.

And who are you, the Class of 2018, and what do we know about you?  Let me share some facts:

This year you were among more than 14,000 students advancing your studies under the guidance of our great faculty at campuses here, across the United States, overseas, and online

Indeed, 44 of this year’s graduates are currently stationed overseas with the U.S. Military.  I know at least one student here in Charleston, Kayla Moore, was stationed in Afghanistan during your studies, and another, Travis Montgomery was deployed stateside.  Thank you.  We salute you.

Overall, out of 5,590 total graduates in the Class of 2018, we have 112 countries represented, and 48 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico. Only Montana and New Hampshire are not represented.

Thirty four Webster staff or faculty members and 29 children or spouses of staff or faculty are graduating this year – I’m told one is here today, Suzanne Ferguson, the daughter of long-time faculty member Wade Ferguson.

Our youngest graduate is just 19 years old:  New Htoo who turns 20 later this month is earning a BS in Business Administration from our Thailand campus.  Our oldest graduate is also at the Thailand campus and…her is 81 years old!  Thomas Leahy earned his MA in International Relations, and he’s truly a lifelong learner:  Thomas earned his bachelor’s degree from Webster in 2014.

So the Class of 2018 is young and seasoned, diverse and well-traveled, and academically impressive.  171 are graduating with undergraduate academic honors, including 44 who are graduating summa cum laude.  295 graduate students are graduating with Graduate Academic Honors.

Finally, befitting a global institution, 3 students graduated with International Distinction.  Congratulations to all of you.

What an outstanding, accomplished and diverse class!

I share these points of pride with you today, graduates, to celebrate all that you have contributed to this vibrant and accomplished community we call Webster.  I encourage you to feel pride in your individual success and the success of the Webster Class of 2018!

So to you, graduates, I say congratulations.  To the families, friends, and supporters of our graduates here today, I say thank you for your encouragement and support you gave in helping these students along the way.  Thank you for being there in their pivotal “but for” moments.

Please join me in congratulating our graduates and wishing them many future successes!