University Park, IL,
12:51 PM

2019 Commencement Celebrates 50 Years of Education

With the pomp and circumstance reserved for only the most distinguished ceremonies, Governors State University celebrated 1,050 graduates and a half century of education during the historic 48th Commencement on May 18, 2019 at the Tinley Park Convention Center.

“It’s a beautiful day for a graduation,’’ boomed Professor Emeritus Tony Labriola, draped in ceremonial regalia to serve tradition as the theatrical master of ceremonies for both morning and afternoon ceremonies. “This is best day of the year.”

Indeed, graduates—some beaming while others wore solemn faces—streamed in to the ever present graduation march to receive their baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral degrees.

Graduates from the Colleges of Arts and Sciences and College of Business received their degrees in a morning ceremony, while College of Education and College of Health and Human Services graduates were celebrated in an afternoon event.

“Let the Governors State University commencement of the 50th academic year begin,’’ proclaimed Faculty Senate President David Golland.

The power of education to transform lives was his message to graduates. Golland invoked the life of Arthur Fletcher, a historical figure he writes about in his second book, “A Terrible Thing to Waste: Arthur Fletcher and the Conundrum of the Black Republican.”

The father of affirmative action, Fletcher led the United Negro College Fund, where he helped craft the signature phrase, “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Fletcher’s trailblazing achievements were made possible through education, Golland told GSU graduates, drawing parallels between 1940s America and today’s climate.

In a harsh world where opportunities seemed scarce for African Americans, Fletcher relied on his education to create pathways to success, Golland said.

“Return always to the skills that you have mastered as college educated women and men. Critical thinking, intellectual analysis, an open mind. Go out there and change the world like Arthur Fletcher.”

In the year since he earned a bachelor’s degree at Governors State, Justin Smith has learned the value of a good education and returned this year to welcome new alumni to the fold. “You are the best example of GSU’s education and excellence and now connected to more than 55,000 alumni who have come before you and also those who will come after you,’’ he said. “Continue your engagement with the university. Come back and share your success stories, become a volunteer leader, mentor a student and network with other alumni.”

Smith was a student speaker at the 2018 ceremony, providing an inspiring example for  Athanasios “Tommy” Kolovos, who delivered an this year's message to his classmates in the morning.

As a 16-year-old high school graduate, Kolovos was unsure of himself and his future when he enrolled at Joliet Junior College. Two years later he arrived a GSU with a clear goal: “I decided to make a promise to myself—that no matter how hard, how challenging, how unbearable this journey would be, I would finish it. “

On Saturday morning, Kolovos said he was grateful for the support he received to make his dream come true. “Thank you to Governors State University for giving me the chance at a life I never thought I could have. Congratulations class of 2019, if you know me, you know that my favorite movie is “Legally Blonde,” so, in the words of Elle Woods, ‘We did it!’ ”

Reinforcing themes of fulfilled dreams and academic excellence, GSU President Elaine P. Maimon singled out special graduates who had arrived at GSU through the Dual Degree Program, the Veterans Resource Center, or were among the first freshmen to receive degrees at GSU. She also recognized Honors graduates for their academic excellence.

“For 50 years, Governors State University has been dedicated to what is now called the New Student Majority—first generation, students of color, adults, and military veterans. On July 17, 1969, that group was not in the majority. But they are now. In this year, our 50th anniversary, we celebrate diversity, creativity, and continuity and the importance for all citizens to keep learning.”

Dr. Maimon encouraged graduates to pursue life-long learning, following in the footsteps of an honorary degree recipient who is a GSU alumnus and now Resident Director at the Goodman Theatre.

“Chuck Smith, after his graduation in 1977, kept learning ….. so his audiences could can keep learning.”

The second critical piece of wisdom Dr. Maimon offered graduates was to help others.

“Graduates, please remember those who have helped you. … Please stand and turn and applaud those who have helped you. …it’s your turn now to help others. That’s the best way to thank those you have helped you. Exercise the rights and privileges of citizenship. Speak out with civility and respect. Distinguish between fake news and responsible journalism. Vote in every election. Invest in your university and what we are building here. …Pay it forward. Help others and, by doing so, you will help yourselves lead a fulfilling life as an educated person.”

For their lifelong investment to promote equity and inclusion through the arts, Smith and civic leader Terry Mazany received honorary doctorate degrees from the university.

Provost Elizabeth Cada draped Smith in the morning and Mazany in the afternoon in elegant velvet hoods as President Maimon proclaimed, “…By virtue of the authority invested in me by the Board of Trustees, I confer upon you … the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa, with all the rights, privileges and responsibility thereunto pertaining.”

Smith, plain spoken and powerfully pragmatic, offered simple words to graduates:

“The number one thing in life is to remember: it is a series of adjustments.'' he said. "I hope you are as proud of yourself as I am of myself right at this very moment.”

For afternoon graduates in the College of Education and College of Health and Human Services heard from student speaker Michelle Westergaard who enrolled at GSU as a 25-year-old elementary education major.

She told graduates she was focused on graduating as quickly as possible when she arrived at GSU.  “I resented the idea of lost time and was anxious to begin my professional life.”

However, a professor encouraged her to join campus organizations, which changed the experience as she rose through the ranks to leadership positions in both the Student Education Association and the prestigious Kappa Delta Pi International Honors Society of Education.

“My involvement with campus life gave me new meaning and purpose to my collegiate pursuits, including a true sense of belonging at GSU.’’

As a student leader, Westergaard worked closely with other Elementary Education majors whom she credits with helping her complete the rigorous curriculum.

“Completing the elementary education program is no small feat. In fact, we started with twelve candidates in our program, and there are only six of us here today. I know that I could not have done it without their never-ending camaraderie. We have grown into a family, and I will forever cherish our friendships and the memories we’ve made together at GSU. It has been a real hoot!”

Outside GSU, her fiancé, a teacher himself, offered her more practical help, serving as a stand in for first-grade lesson plans.

“Jon, I am so grateful for your inspiration and encouragement. I love you, and I cannot wait to marry you,’’ she said, drawing an emotional response from the crowd.

Mazany has helped inspire audiences across the Southland with contributions to GSU’s Center for Performing Arts through his leadership at the Chicago Community Trust. He served there as president and CEO until 2017.

He congratulated GSU on its 50-year-milestone and anticipated another half century of excellence. 

“I have come to admire GSU as an extraordinary academic institution. … I know you will be here to see this institution through its 100th year. …Between now and then, you will make a great difference. Congratulations on this wonderful occasion.”

With degrees conferred and the ceremonial tassel-move from right to right, Labriola closed out the day with a dramatic Gaelic flair on the age-old Irish blessing. “May the road rise up to meet you and may wind be at your back.’’