We Are All Webster: Building community from many identities, owning our biases, infusing diversity with inclusion | Webster University

2019 Commencement


SATURDAY, MAY 11, 2019

Well, what a day! I want to say welcome to Webster University's Board of Trustees and the Webster administrators, faculty members, and stage party guests with us on stage. Welcome to all the Webster staff members who are here serving as hosts. All of you have helped make this day possible by your support for our graduates throughout their Webster experience.

Every year for 100 years, graduates, faculty and family members have been convening to commemorate the importance of an education like the one our graduates completed this year.

The venue has changed over the past century: For most of Webster's first 50 years or so, there was room for all to gather on the Webster Groves campus, whether outside or in the Loretto-Hilton Center once it was completed in the 1960s. But as Webster grew and adapted to the evolving needs of the world around it, this special day required larger spaces.

Today, I think we can say this beautiful space at The Muny fits us perfectly! I would like to share congratulations to our hosts here, because this is a milestone for them as well. Like Webster, The Muny is a historic institution whose reputation extends well beyond St. Louis, where it celebrated its 100th year last summer. These two institutions share the bond of history in this city, and for the past 11 years we have also shared a stage with our annual commencement ceremony.

Today, all of you in Webster's 100th graduating class are the first to debut this beautifully redesigned stage and production space, which will open for The Muny's 101st year.

A new stage for a new century—for the MUNY and for Webster.

But let's think back upon Webster's first class, and how much has changed. Webster was founded in 1915, which means the first graduation ceremony was for the Class of 1919. They began studying and then graduated at a time when women in the United States did not have the right to vote.

A time when the world was recovering from the first World War. Before the internet of course, but also before even landline phones connected every home. Before commercial air travel, naturally, but also before most people had access to a car or taxi or, as we have now on campus, a bike share. They graduated at a time before most of the academic programs you all celebrate today were even imagined. Indeed, so much of what we know of careers, medicine, communication – even expected lifespan – would be foreign to them.

For perspective, there are five thousand graduates in this year's Class of 2019, including one thousand graduates celebrating in this space today.

How many do you suppose were awarded degrees on June 4, 1919? Two.

And while so much of those first two graduates' world was different from the one we know today, they also have similarities to the Class of 2019. One of them, Sister Ann Francis McArdle, was an immigrant from Ireland who came to the United States as a toddler. Like so many of you, she went on to earn her master's degree, too. She later returned to Webster as a faculty member and dean.

The other graduate that year had something in common with our Words of Inspiration speaker, Fayeshun Brown: Florence Waddock was a transfer student. She completed her freshman year at Washington University before transferring to finish her studies at Webster. She later taught English, Math and French at high schools in Missouri and Ohio.

But there is something stronger, something timeless that binds those first two graduates in 1919 with all of you here today: that is the call for leadership in uncertain times.

The post-war world of 1919 was experiencing a re-shuffling of the global geo-political order. What has been called "the American Century" was just getting underway. Technology and emerging mass media were just beginning to transform how we communicated with each other and how we understood cultures beyond our own.

Today we bear the fruits, and in some cases the burdens, of those changes that were underway 100 years ago. The global geo-political balance is again shifting. The pace of our days is faster and the changes we must navigate come with increasing frequency. Our ability to reach each other, but also to enact change from anywhere in the world, has grown. The accessibility of a college degree is much greater today, and the opportunities that come with that degree are much more widespread.

But even with that progress, barriers remain. Webster challenges each of us to nurture an increasingly diverse and inclusive global community, which is reflected in our mission. But this aspiration also reflects the challenges we face around the world where fear, anxiety and misunderstanding too often fuel exclusion, hate, and violence.

In 1919 -- as in 2019– these may feel like uncertain times for the graduates here today. But each of you has been prepared for them. Your education with Webster grounds you in the perspectives, the knowledge, and the membership in a broader community that should reassure you that you can do this. You are called to lead. You are prepared to succeed. You are part of a worldwide network of alumni that will have your back just as you reach out to change the world side by side with them.

Who are you, the Class of 2019, and what do we know about you? It is a commencement tradition to share some numbers that paint a picture:

  • This year you were among 13,000 students advancing your studies under the guidance of our great faculty at campuses here, across the United States, overseas, and online.
  • Indeed, 45 of this year's graduates are currently stationed overseas with the U.S. Military. We salute you.
  • Others who are based overseas or around the U.S. have joined us today in St. Louis: 83 graduates here at The Muny today are joining us from one of our more than 60 campuses outside St. Louis. Among them are 27 from our campus location in Chengdu, China. Thank you for coming all this way, we are so thrilled you could participate this tradition today!
  • Overall, out of 5,000 total graduates in the Class of 2019, we have 101 countries represented, and 44 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia. (Idaho, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Vermont are not represented.)
  • 32 Webster staff or faculty members and 26 children or spouses of staff or faculty are graduating this year
  • Our youngest graduate is just 19 years old: Zhibek Nazhmetdinova, is earning a BS in Business Administration from the Geneva campus
  • Our oldest graduate is an online student earning his fourth degree with Webster and...he is 72 years old! Lovell Lee Leddell completed his fourth MA with us in December 2018 and is already enrolled in his fifth!
  • So the Class of 2019 is young and seasoned, diverse and well traveled, and academically impressive. 153 are graduating with undergraduate academic honors, including 52 who are graduating summa cum laude. 232 graduate students are graduating with Graduate Academic Honors.
  • Finally, befitting a global institution, 7 students are graduating with International Distinction. Congratulations to all of you.
  • 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 2019!

And 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.

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

Class of 2019, this is the moment you have been waiting for.

By virtue of the authority vested in me by the Board of Trustees of Webster University and with the recommendation of the University faculty, I hereby confer upon each member of the Class of 2019 the bachelor's, master's, doctoral degree or certificate with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities pertaining thereto.

Your names will be permanently entered on the rolls as alumni of Webster University. You may move your tassels from right to left to signify your new status as graduates of Webster University.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I proudly present the Webster University Class of 2019! Congratulations!

You are now members of the exclusive, worldwide alumni club of over 200,000 Webster graduates. Please welcome Dr. Vanessa Davis, an alumna of the Webster Classes of 2004 and 2015, and the president of the Alumni Association. Dr. Davis will now welcome you to the Webster University Alumni Association.

To all of our graduates, I invite you to pause for a moment and take all of this in. What has transpired here today is a fitting tribute to your hard work and a reflection of the outstanding Webster University global community. Today that community reaches a new milestone in its history with all of you in the 100th graduating class.

So give yourself a few seconds to reflect and look around this beautiful venue. I invite you to thank all the people who supported you on your way to this moment − your family, spouses, children, friends, coworkers, faculty, advisors and fellow students who stood by you through your most challenging moments on your way to this day.

Behind me on stage today are representatives of the Webster University community who help make all of this possible. These include the distinguished and dedicated Board of Trustee members, faculty members and administrators who believe in this institution and create engaging learning environments for you, and for the students who follow you. I invite them to stand and be recognized.

Everything you see here today, from the regalia and flags, to the music and ceremony, to the honorary degree recipients – all of it is a symbol of the significance of your accomplishment and the ideals that you will take with you through the rest of your life.

This moment marks a transition to the next chapter, but it is a transition from a foundation that will never be forgotten. The bonds you have forged will connect you to each other and to Webster for life. Together, we are global citizens and we are connected through this wonderful global community.

Once more, congratulations, and thank you for attending the 100th Commencement Ceremony of Webster University!