The class of 2009 has now officially been done with college for more than a month-the 139th commencement took place on Sunday, May 17. The graduation was held from 12-4 p.m. on the Great Lawn.
The ceremony honored students from all of the five colleges within St. John’s (St. John’s College, The School of Education, The College of Pharmacy, Tobin College of Business and The College of Professional Studies).
Joseph Sciame, vice president of Community Relations began the commencement by explaining the significance behind the robe worn by the graduates and the professors who sat on stage.
“Moments ago, students and professors marched together all attired in academic clothing similar to that worn in universities during the middle ages,” he said. “The colorful academic hood is ceremonial-a mark of status, a symbolism it retains to this day.”
Father Harrington, the president of the University, spoke about the economic crisis and how that affected students at St. John’s.
“For many, 2009 will long be remembered as a year of great economic turmoil and challenges; a year of recession marked by unemployment, and so many other painful challenges for many families,” he said.
“While all of that is so very true, for those of us at St. John’s University, 2009 will never be a year remembered solely for economic gloom.”
Harrington went on to call this year’s group of graduates “an extraordinary group of young, capable and enthusiastic women and men.”
He went on to say, “Your multiple personal talents and strengths all bode so very well for the future of this University, as well as for the future of our city, our nation and our world.”
Before this year’s graduating class received their degrees, three individuals were awarded with medals: Immaculee Ilibagiza, a Rwandan genocide survivor and a public speaker, received the International Medal and also served as the keynote speaker; Michael Repole, a St. John’s alumnus and co-founder of Glaceau, received the President’s Medal; Joseph Schwartz, a St. John’s alumnus and retired partner of Wellington Management received an Honorary Doctor of Commercial Science Degree.
Harrington called Ilibagiza “a young woman whose life story is a source of inspiration to everyone who knows of her… I am confident that this story will call each of you forth to use the gifts which are yours for those who are most in need.”
After these awards were given, Ilibagiza, who received an award last year and also spoke at the University last year, gave her keynote address.
“It is a joy to come back to St. John’s University,” she said. “This is my home now.”
Ilibagiza spoke about her experiences in the Rwandan genocide Ilibagiza said that her tribe in Rwanda was “hated,” and that at one point, her father told her to hide at a neighbor’s house-this was the last time she saw her parents. Her neighbor hid him in a tiny bathroom, along with seven more women.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening in our country. The government leaders, they were the ones calling people to kill every one of my tribe,” she said. “I can’t even tell you the fear when you know that someone is looking for you is inches away from you.”
These experiences happened to Ilibagiza when she was a college student herself.”I remember when the genocide started, I had just gone home for Easter holiday, but I was also preparing to graduate,” she said. “When my parents died, I forgot completely what I was in school for. It took maybe about two years to figure it out, that I am still a part of this world and I still have to move on.”
Ilibagiza spoke about how her faith allowed her to overcome her fear.
“One voice was telling that they would find us, that we were dying, and the other was telling me, ‘hold on…'” she said. “It was almost like my faith was crushed, because I couldn’t remember if God existed. At the same time though, my faith was born. I chose to listen to the voice that told me to hold on.”
Ilibagiza then went on to explain what her experiences taught her.
“The genocide was a horrible thing, but it taught me so much, so many lessons. As you can see, the greater the sacrifices, the greater the lessons are,” she said. “I learned so much about forgiveness. I really realized that, in life, we can’t move on, we can’t hope for any joy if we don’t forgive those who hurt us, even forgive ourselves.”