Welcome to our third annual December Toast to Mid-Year Graduates! By the popular demand of our students, we established this tradition two years ago to recognize students who finish the requirements of their degree over the summer or at any time this fall. Like all good things, it has improved each year, and the December Toast is an event we all look forward to.

We know that Webster students, like Webster University itself, are always moving forward. So there is no telling where you will be or how your career will have evolved between now and the time of our traditional Commencement at the Muny in May—May 9th 2015. But that day is always a truly beautiful one, bringing together thousands of graduates and their families from around the world to celebrate the achievement of a Webster University degree. I encourage you to mark your calendars for it; our record is pretty strong in that the weather is nicer and brighter than it is in December.

I would be remiss if I welcomed you tonight without acknowledging the tumultuous times for our community and our world. Locally in our region, in cities across the United States, and in places like Pakistan and Australia, people are hurting. Surely all of us have felt the impact either directly or through friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors. As a community, we feel the effects of these events, and the issues around them rightly capture our attention.

As an institution with a long history of resilience through challenging times, we are committed to our role in the community as a safe forum for dialogue, understanding and positive change.

So tonight I invite all of us to share a moment with each other as members of this Webster community. We know many of you early graduates are already moving to the next phase of your life and career. But it is good for us to take this night as an opportunity to pause, just for a moment. A moment to reflect on where we have been and where we will go next. To think about who has helped make this possible for us, and for whom we, in turn, can make great things happen.

This week, our offices received a letter from Sandra Altamirano-Pickell, a graduate student at our campus in San Antonio, thanking her donor for the scholarship that is helping her achieve her degree.

I want to share a section of her letter tonight because it expresses so well the impact of, in her case, her mother, on the value Sandra places on education. Here are Sandra’s words:

I am majoring in clinical mental health counseling at Webster University. I was the first in my family to graduate from high school and with your help the first to obtain a graduate degree. 

I remember the day we arrived to the United States, from Mexico. My mom sat next to me, I sat on an empty milk crate and she sat on a step. My mom gleamed with happiness. She was ecstatic and emotional. She glanced at the empty two story house and said “this is the land of opportunity.” She was right. Our lives changed for the good. Our new home was subsidized by the federal government. I soon realized that my classmates referred to home as “the projects.”

Mom would say “education is the only inheritance I will leave you”. I did not realize we were considered low income and that we did not have what others took for granted. I soon discovered that my neighbors had a toaster, and I was fascinated by it. For a school project I was asked to write an essay on how to operate a coffee maker. I sat there quietly not knowing where to start. We did not own a toaster, a coffeemaker, nor a car.

I wanted to go to college to help my parents, to have things that my friends had and to own a car. My mom and I walked everywhere. Walking with my mom to the grocery store and to her doctor appointments in 100 degree weather motivated me to work hard and enroll in college. I was accepted into Upward Bound as a freshman in high school. Mom said that the only way to get out of the “projects” was to go to school.

We did not have public transportation and mom would walk countless miles to walk with me. I worried about mom; therefore, opted out from many activities. I vividly recall my sixth grade teacher saying “everyone will wear sweat pants to the school function, everyone has those.” I did not. My priorities were in the right order and mom’s health deteriorated. I worked three jobs and attended college. I took care of my parents and it took me twenty years to graduate with an undergraduate degree. 

Mom would say, “there are times to give and times to receive”. Mom focused on giving and on paying it forward and she is my hero. She taught me the true meaning of courage, compassion and respect.

I started college with a goal. I wanted to own a toaster, a coffeemaker and a car. I was going to utilize the material things to provide a better life for those that provided for me, my parents. My goal has changed. I will utilize courage, compassion and respect to help others. Mom was right. There are times to give and times to receive. It is time that I pay it forward. Thank you for this gift and for being part of my journey.

Those are the words of a Webster student about her late mother, Aurora Altamirano Lafuente, and I am honored to share them with you tonight.

A beautiful thing about Webster University is the diversity of experiences our faculty, staff, and students bring to this wonderful community. We come from many walks of life and from a rich circle of family and friends. We are grateful that so many of our graduates’ family and friends are here tonight to join in this celebration of community.

Will everyone who is here tonight as a guest of a graduate to please stand up and let us thank and recognize you? Please, stand and let us see you. It is a great  gift you have provided, supporting these graduates as they pursue their dreams. From all of us at Webster, we thank you.

I look forward to speaking with many of you at the reception later. Webster is full of rich individual stories that reflect the diversity of the human experience, and I would love to hear yours.

As you know, that history now encompasses 100 years: A century as a diverse, global institution that thrives in communities around the world thanks to the inspiration and dreams of generations of students like you. By earning your degree here, you are joining a worldwide community of more than 172,000 alumni from many walks of life, who studied at campuses in 60 cities and eight countries around the world–from Austria to Thailand, from San Antonio to Charleston, and of course online.

You are following in a 100-year tradition of Webster graduates who came before you. 

I know our graduates are disbursed throughout the hall tonight. I take this moment to ask you all the graduates to stand and be recognized. If you are celebrating your Webster degree tonight, please stand and accept our applause.

For you, Webster graduates, may you always cherish your heritage, celebrate your accomplishments, and cast your vision to a thriving future–for you, for your family and for the community you call home. We are counting on you. There are indeed, times to receive and times to give. In the receiving of your degree, you give us at Webster great joy.

Congratulations! And now, please welcome my partner in leadership, Webster’s provost, senior vice president and chief operating officer, Julian Schuster.

PROVOST JULIAN SCHUSTER

Thank you, President Stroble.

As Provost, as the chief operating officer at Webster, and as the chief academic officer, on behalf of all of us at Webster I want to tell you that seeing you here tonight makes us proud. Your success reaffirms what we do.

Everyone you have met at Webster–the administrators, the deans, the staff, and the faculty who go the extra mile to make your coursework special–all of us are here because we are driven by seeing students like you succeed. We believe in what you do and who you are. And we believe in helping you harness your talents, your curiosity, and your innovative spirit to achieve excellence in academics and excellence in your career.

You will hear from the deans on the video screens in a moment, but let me emphasize one thing you will hear from them: For us this is a proud day yet bittersweet day: We are sorry to see you go. And yet we are so proud and happy to see where you will go next. That includes all of us at Webster–deans, faculty, staff.

To all the faculty and staff in the audience tonight, will you please stand up? Let us take a moment to recognize your part in these students’ success. Graduates, by all means give these people a hand.

We know you did not arrive at this point today by happenstance. You arrived here through deliberate choices. You chose to join an academic community. You chose to make the sacrifices and the investment needed to pursue higher education. You chose to follow a path that leads to exploration, to better understanding yourself and better understanding the world around you.

That world around you includes your career, your community, your culture. Increasingly, communities in the 21st century are formed differently than they used to be. More and more, rather than being born into communities, we decide which communities we wish to belong to. You, as Webster University students and alumni, have made such decisions. You come from different cities and countries, but you are here thanks to your willingness to join a bold community of learning.

That is why we emphasize global education at Webster University. We are all part of a global learning community that gets bigger and more complex as international borders blur and the world gets smaller. You have chosen to prepare yourself for this world, with all the strengths this academic community provides.

Because education is more than a degree. An educated society is a more successful and harmonious society. With your education, you are now armed with skills to appreciate all that life has to offer and the people within it. You are equipped to compete with the best talent in the world. You are prepared to work well with people of all cultures. You are poised to lead a life of purpose.

As we have begun celebrating Webster’s centennial this year, we have also engaged in strategic planning to ask ourselves, as the centennial theme says, “How will we make a global impact for the next century?”

We know that must come from our own programs and services as they evolve and respond to better meet the needs of today’s students, tomorrow’s economy, and the world’s future.

But we also know that this global impact will come from you. If we have done our jobs – and as chief operating officer for the institution, I like to think we have – then you will help show us the way. By participating in this institution we call Webster University, by giving us the honor of taking part in your journey, you have affirmed this belief in an educated society, one equipped with informed knowledge of the mind, of the soul, of cultures and of the skills needed to bring us all forward.

The 21st century is yours. You are already well on your way to leaving a mark that this institution will recall when it celebrates 200 years. Good luck, and we expect to hear from you soon.

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