University Park, IL,
22:50 PM

Class of 2017 Commencement

Although rain fell and thunder provided a soundtrack at times, nothing dampened their spirits and sunshine prevailed in the hearts of the 1,710 new graduates from Governors State University, all who received their baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral degrees on Saturday, May 20 at the Tinley Park Convention Center during GSU’s 46th commencement. Wearing smiles, caps, and gowns, the Class of 2017 took turns walking in the commencement ceremony exercises. Graduates from the College of Business, the College of Health and Human Services, and the College of Education attended a 10 a.m. ceremony, and this year’s degrees from the College of Arts and Sciences were awarded at the 5 p.m. evening event.

Master of Ceremonies Tony Labriola, Professor Emeritus and perennial host, introduced speakers at both with characteristically joy-tinged flourish and decorum. This year’s festivities, though, were underscored with a seriousness that reflected the political struggles and climate of both the state and the nation.

Faculty Senate President Barbara Winicki spoke plaintively to the graduates and those who came to celebrate with them.

“During what has been a very difficult year for GSU’s faculty, staff, and administration, we have known, whatever might happen, one thing will stay the same: students are the most important people on campus,” Winicki said. “In the midst of the fiscal and curricular storms of this past year, the classroom has been a safe harbor for your professors. Thank you for being our students. … I commend you for your perseverance, for demonstrating your determination over and over again to complete what you started … you have sacrificed your sleep and your social life … on behalf of GSU, I commend you.”

Welcoming the Class of 2017 to the GSU Alumni Association, Will Davis urged the graduates to “pay it forward” and “help future students cross this stage.”

Student speaker Sandra “Filly” Chavez, graduating with honors with her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, used the morning commencement as an opportunity to challenge her fellow graduates to make the most of their degrees in a meaningful way. She spoke of the strength that diversity brings to unity and the need for change on a global scale.

“Hola and welcome, Class of 2017,” Chavez said. “Jaguars, we need to stand up for one another and recognize that the differences between us are our strongest weapon. … Be the reason people still believe there is hope, love, and compassion in this world. …Never let anyone stand between you and your purpose. Knowing how you are connected to the world is how you make your degree matter. Stay humble, always be kind, be hungry, and always be the hardest worker in the room.”

In the evening, Sarah Hirsch, receiving her Master of Arts in English, represented the CAS Class of 2017. Her speech highlighted her personal story, one that many other GSU graduates related to, of being a parent working toward a degree. She shared a moment the crowd, the story of her classmates and professor taking turns holding her newborn son for her in class so that she could give a presentation.

“(My son) went to college at ten days old,” Hirsch said, “and I aced my finals. The outpouring of support at GSU comes from our peers, our faculty, and the family that cheers on our studies. This is our community. … I hope that you find a path in life that holds the spirit of the GSU community. This is our native state, our community, the network of support that has made us our best selves. And now we are ready to begin a new chapter of our lives. I hope that you find a path that encourages you to use all of the knowledge you’ve obtained. Not just the knowledge from the many books and tests you’ve studied here at GSU, but also the knowledge you’ve gathered from faculty who have mentored you, fellow students who you’ve commiserated with, and, if you’re like me, your own family who has been an unending source of support.”

When GSU President Elaine P. Maimon addressed the graduates, she reminded them that the day represented a start rather than an ending, and she recognized some of GSU’s unique learning communities, notably the Honors graduates, Dual Degree Program members, U.S. military members and families, and those graduates who lived in Prairie Place, the university’s on-campus living and learning community.

“We call this ceremony “Commencement” because you are at the beginning of a life-long commitment to education,” Dr. Maimon said. “…Graduates, it’s your turn now to help others. That’s the best way to thank those who have helped you. Exercise the rights and privileges of citizenship. Speak out with civility and respect. Vote in every election. Encourage friends and family members to attend college. Give back philanthropically. Invest in GSU and in what we are building here. Pay it forward. Help others. And by doing so you will help yourselves toward a fulfilling life as an educated person.”

During the morning ceremony, Dr. Shaun Harper was awarded an honorary degree from Governors State for his research and outreach in promoting equity and inclusion in education.

In his brief acceptance, Dr. Harper praised GSU for its contribution to a “racially diverse democracy and a global economy.”

“This excellent, impressively diverse university has chosen to honor me for my commitment to equity,” Harper said. “In so doing, GSU affirms its own commitment. Please know that I am profoundly grateful for this honor and to be in the company of such brilliance here among your graduates. I am very, very proud to be a member of this community.”

Bob Abernethy, a lifelong journalist whose PBS news show Religion & Ethics News Weekly brought religion and spirituality into fair public discourse, was recognized and awarded an honorary degree in the evening. 

“You have created here not only a great institution of teaching and learning,” Abernethy said, "but simultaneously a community, a huge extended family of people who care for each other and who help each other become the men and women they all have the ability to be. ... Thank you for the great honor you give me today of being a small part of your commitment to learning and to each other."

The speakers done, remarks delivered, it was time for the graduates to receive their degrees. Called one by one, each proud member of the Governors State community crossed the stage and paused to smile as Dr. Maimon shook their hands. When the last name was called, Dr. Maimon asked them to rise and guided them in moving their tassels, and she conferred their degrees.

“Upon the recommendation of the faculty of the university and by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Board of Trustees of Governors State University and the State of Illinois,” Dr. Maimon said, “I confer upon you the appropriate academic degree with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities thereunto pertaining. … Welcome, graduates, into the company of educated women and men.”

Labriola’s final words were an old Irish blessing.

“May the road rise to meet you,” he said, “and may the wind be always at your back.”

As the Class of 2017 rose and filed out to be embraced by proud parents, friends, and supporters, pop music played. Can’t Stop the Feeling!, an upbeat track by Justin Timberlake, sang the graduates outsome dancing, some emotional, all proud.