Editor's note: To view a podcast of the Winter Commencement ceremony, click here. For a photo gallery and an interactive Commencement program, see the icons at the bottom of the article.
4:33 p.m., Jan. 9, 2010----Jill Biden, a University of Delaware alumna and wife of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, also a UD graduate, told more than 400 Winter Commencement graduates that education is transformational.
Speaking at Winter Commencement on Saturday, Jan. 9, in the Bob Carpenter Center, she cited the stories of several members of the class and encouraged graduates to both celebrate this day and also to go forward and share the “priceless gift” of education with others.
University President Patrick Harker welcomed the audience of more than 4,400, which included the graduates, their families and friends, as well as UD faculty, administrators and members of the Board of Trustees.
“What a great day this is,” Harker said. “It's the day that a lot of dreams are fulfilled, and even better, it is the day that many more dreams will be hatched.”
In noting that commencement is a term that inspires a sense of hopefulness and new beginnings, Harker said the ceremony celebrates the potential for future personal and career success. And because commencement also is a time when possibilities seem limitless and all dreams are possible, he urged the members of the Class of 2009 to be interested, to be open, and to be optimistic.
“Everyone wants to be interesting, but, it is more important to be interested,” Harker said. “Be interested in what surrounds you -- your family, your friends, your career and your community. Be interested in how the world works, and how it doesn't.”
Harker also recommended that the graduates be open to the different ideas, opinions and perspectives that define the intellectual diversity invoked in the University's Path to ProminenceTM strategic plan.
“Being open to disparate views doesn't necessarily mean embracing them, but it does mean entertaining them,” Harker said. “Your truth may not change. It may emerge stronger than before, or more nuanced. But it will have been tested, and that is the important thing.”
Harker also emphasized the value of optimism, the quality that builds societies and civilization, the sense that meaningful change is always possible.
“Optimism takes the capacity to risk and the capacity to hope, and I wish you large reserves of both,” Harker said. “Your talent will take you far, but the will to invent, to innovate and to improve is rooted in optimism.”
Harker also extended condolences to the family of Commencement speaker Jill Biden and Vice President Joe Biden, whose mother, Jean, died Friday, Jan. 8, at age 92.
“The entire UD family was saddened to learn that Jean Biden has died. Our thoughts are all with you at this time,” Harker said.
UD Board of Trustees Chairman A. Gilchrist Sparks III presented Jill Biden with an honorary degree, the highest honor bestowed by the University.
Sparks cited Biden's works as a loyal Blue Hen and lifelong learner, a dedicated teacher, a caring community activist, Blue Star Mom and supporter of America's military families and her official role as Second Lady of the United States.
“American mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell has said, 'The job of an educator is to teach students to see the vitality in themselves,'” Sparks said. “Dr. Biden, your students and all those whose lives you have touched will undoubtedly agree that you have an unfailing ability to bring out the best in others.”
An educator for the past 29 years, Biden earned her doctorate in education at UD, which was awarded at the Winter Commencement ceremony in 2007. Biden's address to the newest members of the Class of 2009 continues a longstanding UD tradition of having distinguished graduates deliver the Winter Commencement address.
“I was so looking forward to having my husband, Vice President Biden, here today. As many of you know, we lost Joe's mom yesterday,” Biden said. “She was an amazing woman, and education was one of the values she instilled in her children.”
Education was also the main topic of Biden's remarks. Recalling when she received her doctorate three years ago, she congratulated members of the Class of 2009 on their individual and collective accomplishments.
“I know that none of you will ever forget this day -- your day. Nor will those who supported you, your proud mothers and fathers, your husbands and wives, your sons and daughters, your grandparents and friends,” Biden said. “So I feel truly fortunate to be here with all of you, and I want to wish each of the graduates my heartfelt congratulations. I know all of the hard work that you did to get here. You did it. You all deserve a round of applause.”
During her time at UD, Biden said she remembered riding her bike all over campus, running to classes in Memorial Hall and being especially moved by Lou Arena, associate professor emeritus, “one of the many professors here on campus who sparked my lifelong passion of teaching.”
“The University of Delaware transformed me, and not only because it was here that I met my husband, Joe, when I was a senior,” Biden said. “The University of Delaware transformed me because that is what education does. Your best professors can inspire you. Your peers can motivate you to be better than you ever imagined. Your favorite courses can literally alter the path you take in life.”
Biden noted that such transformation could be seen in members of the Class of 2009, including Michael Popovich, of Lewes, who spent four years in the U.S. Coast Guard onboard the first Coast Guard vessel since the Vietnam War to see combat.
“With financial support from the GI Bill and academic support from mentors at Delaware, you began taking classes at Delaware Tech, where I'm proud to say I taught for many years,” Biden said. Today, you are graduating with a degree in agriculture and natural resources, and you are already employed, conducting cutting-edge research here at UD on the development of 'green' fertilizers.”
Biden also saluted the efforts of Barbara Burlingame, who at age 59, was the oldest graduate at the ceremony. “It was 42 years ago, in the summer of 1968, that you first stepped foot on a college campus,” she said, adding, “But today, after four decades as a working woman supporting your family while taking night classes at colleges near your home, you are graduating this afternoon with a B.A. in English and a concentration in professional writing.”
Such stories, Biden noted, reflect the challenges and obstacles that members of the Class of 2009 have overcome, and also highlight the potential for life achievements represented through education.
“People often ask me why I continue to teach, and my answer to this is simple -- it's you,” Biden said. “It's the students who overcome obstacles, students who dare to think and dream big.”
Biden also drew on her continuing experiences as a community college teacher for the past 16 years, noting that she is inspired by returning students who often renew their educational journey by spending two years at a community college before transferring to a four-year school.
“Though my students may differ in age and background from many of you, their stories are ultimately the same as yours -- and mine,” Biden said. “They are the stories of education changing lives, building confidence and opening doors.”
Biden called on students to embrace the vision of Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, who once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”
“Because you all came to this college at different stages in life, after sacrifice and hard work, you all walk across the same stage today having accomplished something no one can ever take away from you, your education,” Biden said. “And now, graduates, it's your turn to pass on that priceless gift.”
Biden also urged members of Class of 2009 to become mentors and teachers and to inspire others to find and fulfill their individual passions in their chosen fields.
“You can do whatever it is that you love, and by mentoring or volunteering outside of the classroom and in your community, you can inspire others to love that something too,” Biden said. “So while I encourage all of you today to let your education continue wherever you go next -- to open your eyes to the world around you and to be curious about everything in your path -- I encourage you, like [Thomas] Jefferson, also to keep your eyes open to others, to imaging what they are capable of being and becoming.”
Speaking on behalf of UD faculty, Cihan Cobanoglu, associate professor of hotel, restaurant and institutional management and president of the UD Faculty Senate, congratulated students on their achievements and urged them to make education part of a lifelong journey.
“The world is huge and it is filled with wonder and beauty. Please remain open for further enrichment,” Cobanoglu said. “If you have appreciated what your teachers or faculty have done for you and have been inspired by any of us, I think one great way you can show your appreciation is by doing everything you can to provide those kinds of opportunities or inspirations to others. That's how we spread it around.”
Luke Williams, a member of the Class of 2009, opened the ceremony with a powerful singing of the national anthem and closed the event by performing the UD alma mater.
A reception was held on the concourse after the conferral of degrees.
From the graduates
Lauren Saveikis, a graduate of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said it felt great to be receiving her degree and that her favorite experience at UD was a study abroad trip to Australia last winter.
Amanda Barnard, an animal science major with a concentration in pre-veterinary medicine, said, “One of the things I enjoyed most at UD was the people. When you change classes each semester, you meet so many different people.”
Jatupat Kittiampanont, an information sciences major from Bangkok, Thailand, liked the beauty of the UD campus and collaborative learning experience, saying, “The University of Delaware taught me how to interact and cooperate with people.”
Adam Kruger, a political science major from Baltimore, said that “it's unreal just being here. I can hardly take it in.” Plans include pursuing a master's degree in political science at Towson University and becoming a rabbi.
William Blair, a business management major from Washington, D.C., said the most meaningful part of his UD experience was working in an Upward Bound summer program. “It was an opportunity to give back some of what I've been given,” he said. “Many of those kids have not even thought about going to college, and now they can.”
Kaitlyn Thompson, an Honors Program student and psychology major from Chester Springs, Pa., who earned an honors degree with distinction, said that she chose UD because of the beauty of its campus, it location and the fact that she had friends who really liked the school. She also enjoyed a study abroad trip to South Africa. “We studied crime and the effect of AIDS. This was the best experience of my life,” she said.
Article by Jerry Rhodes
Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson, Ambre Alexander and Evan Krape