Fort Bliss Commencement

Good evening, graduates! We have assembled today in your honor. As president of this worldwide institution, which educates students like you in 60 cities, eight countries and four continents around the world, it is my pleasure to see you tonight in this particular place, at this pivotal point, in your impressive life’s journey.

Look around you and you will see friends, family members, classmates, faculty and staff members who share in that fortune – all vested in your success. We are all so proud of you and your accomplishment. You represent the fulfillment of our past, the excitement of our present, and the hope for our future.

Today is, of course, a special moment in your career. But I hope you realize it is also a significant moment in the history of this institution. You are part of the final worldwide graduating class of Webster University’s first 100 years. And tonight’s ceremony at Fort Bliss is the first commencement of this centennial year.

As you may know, Webster was founded nearly 100 years ago in St. Louis, by Catholic nuns, who left their home in Kentucky to meet a need for educational opportunity – in this case, for women west of the Mississippi. At that time, the world was embroiled in World War I, and future General George Patton was experiencing his first battle as part of General Pershing’s expedition stationed right here at Fort Bliss.

At that time the U.S. still had vast areas of frontier, and the women who founded Webster took on a new frontier for their order. After educating young children in rural Kentucky since 1812, they expanded their mission in the 1850’s to teach young students in dedicated academies and parish schools in Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Missouri, in a small town just outside of St. Louis. When the first Webster building was constructed in 1915 – a building that still stands today – the city of Webster Groves had dirt roads and women could not yet vote.

Think about the 1850’s – 1890’s in the Southwest – these women knew no fear. Webster and El Paso share their history in ways you may not know. The Loretto Academy, founded here in 1923 and still serving your students in this regions – was founded by the very same Mother Praxedes Carty, a dynamo of a woman and the visionary who founded our college.

Many years later, the founding director of our new campus in Ghana, wrote of this founding order: “The Sisters of Loretto did not emerge from an easy period of history. Its roots are in the toil and energy and promise of a frontier where men and women died young. The church was built from the clay of a Kentucky swept by civil war, raked with cruel midnight raids by bands of irregulars, often no more than bandits turned loose by war. The history of Mother Berlindes Downs, who began this church and saw it completed, does not reveal a woman who could be easily beaten by any circumstance.”

Those words were written in 1980 by Tom Oates, the person who helped Webster open its first campus in Africa, its fourth continent, in 2013. Let there be no question about what these stories tell us: The founders of your university were true entrepreneurs, and I am proud, and you should be proud, to know that Webster has continued in that pioneering spirit each year since – in St. Louis, in El Paso and around the world.

As I think about your academic accomplishments today in the context of this 100-year-old university, and as I think about the tales of our founders, I am reminded that all of us live in interactions of the past, the present and the future. 

The founders of Webster, an essential part of our past, were building a vibrant present for their students at a small college for women in suburban St. Louis. At the same time, they were laying the groundwork for a future that today is represented by all of you. While they knew they were doing something courageous for the time, could they have known what they created would one day be a global university? An institution that would serve men and women undergraduates and graduates from 148 countries with the latest academic curriculum, research and market-responsive programming? An innovative university that, 100 years later, could say that nearly half its history includes providing education programs directly to military service members, families and colleagues like those of you here at Fort Bliss?

And what a proud tradition you all have built here at Fort Bliss. It is 38 years and counting now for Webster at Fort Bliss. In fact, this was one of the first places where Webster opened doors on a military installation. Our commitment to the military has only strengthened during the time since. You can see the history and conviction of that commitment in the lives of the people here who helped you attain your degree. Just to mention a few:

  • Terry Smith and Bill Sweetnam, each of them Delta Mu Delta honorees, have been with Webster for 28 years.
  • Your office manager Rosi Rankin celebrates 25 years at Webster.
  • Counseling faculty members Donna Moltane and Kathy Brennan have also been here nearly 25 years.
  • And Dr. Richard Park, who is doing the hooding at our ceremony, has spent 20 years at Webster, as has his wife, Patti, who also teaches in the Counseling program.

Today, all of you graduates are formally joining a proud tradition, one shared by more than 176,000 alumni worldwide, of people who have turned to Webster for high-quality learning experiences that transform them for global citizenship and individual excellence.

And that is why it is my honor to share this special day with you. While my office is at our home campus in St. Louis – in one of the original buildings built on that dirt road, in fact – my role as president includes traveling the world meeting thousands of students and alumni like yourselves, and working with directors like Dr. Beth Vivaldi and the faculty and staff here.

During my visit to Fort Bliss, I have been delighted to hear about the outstanding accomplishments of this student body, as well as its rich diversity. Among the more than 140 receiving degrees today, some of you are active or retired service members. Others are civilians and contractors. Ten of you are spouses who have embarked on this academic journey together with your partner, including two of you who were born and raised in Russia! And I understand that today is the first time the Society of Human Resources Management honor cord is represented in a Fort Bliss graduating class. Such diversity. Such rich history and promising futures here.

Perhaps you are building or extending a long-term career here in Texas; or perhaps this is a stop on your journey to even bigger things elsewhere. Whichever your role, whatever your career goals, the beauty of what you bring to Webster, and what you found here as you pursued your degree, is this inspiring mix of students, faculty, staff and alumni sharing their knowledge and experience from all walks of life. 

Today is formally the commencement ceremony for Webster’s Fort Bliss campus location, but here at Webster, the concept of “home” is everywhere. Your Webster University graduating class this year will include more than 7,000 fellow graduates at nearly 38 other military locations across the United States, and metropolitan and traditional campuses in 60 cities, in eight countries, on four continents around the world. Add to that your classmates who pursued their degree partially or fully online, and you are part of something significant here at Fort Bliss and indeed in almost every time zone on the planet.

There are so many success stories from our graduates and alumni at Fort Bliss and beyond, each of them building on each other and expanding the prestige of your Webster University degree. As you join them as Webster alumni, and as you go on to build connections with local industry and community organizations, you’re furthering the mission that this institution was founded upon, and you’re giving back to the legacy of Webster University here in Texas and around the country and indeed the world. 

And that is what I would like to leave with you here today. In preparation for Webster University’s centennial year, this past summer I conducted reading and research at the Sisters of Loretto Motherhouse in Kentucky, to gain a better sense of our beginnings.

Digging into their archives, reading correspondence from 100, 150 years ago, seeing some of the stories I told you earlier gave me a renewed appreciation for the role all of us have in not only improving our present; but also honoring the pioneers of our past; and of course, laying the groundwork for a brighter future.

Webster’s founders did that, to an initial class of just five students back in 1915. Today, the more than 140 of you graduating here in Fort Bliss, and the 7,000 Webster classmates joining you around the world this year, are both a result and a continuation of what those founders started. They saw a need. They had a dream. They went out and saw it to fruition, and today you are part of the 100th year of that dream come to life.

For you, Class of 2014, may you always cherish your heritage, celebrate your accomplishments, and cast your vision to a thriving future – for you, for your family and community, for Webster. We are counting on you. Congratulations!