Georgian Court University graduates must remember that expertise in their chosen fields and success in their future careers will only take them so far.
Faith, is critical to true achievement, they were told during the school’s 2015 Commencement exercises. More than 350 undergraduates and nearly 200 master’s students were awarded degrees in fields from social work to psychology and homeland security to Integrative Health.
“You already know that to whom much is given, much is expected,” GCU President Rosemary E. Jeffries, RSM, Ph.D., said. “For you who have been given so much, in faith, much is required. You must do more as faith demands.”
The five-letter word was a recurring theme at the May 20–21 celebration. This year’s Commencement marked the last graduation for President Jeffries, who is stepping down after 14 years at the helm and was granted president emeritus status by the GCU Board of Trustees at the undergraduate ceremony on May 21.
“Live a life worthy of your calling,” she told the graduates. “Where could faith call you? I’m sure you cannot even imagine. Will it help you to dream how to make life better for others? Or will faith demand meeting unexpected needs of people in different places? Go with our blessing and with high hopes into a world in need of your commitment and your faith.”
The university also honored several professors with emeritus status—acknowledging their decades of teaching, research, and service to the university. They include: Sandra Sessa, Ph.D., ’77 (psychology); Suzanne Pilgram (art); Robert J. Louden, Ph.D. (criminal justice/homeland security); Joanne Patrice Kenny, Ed.D. (education); Linda M. Kardos ’81, ’13 (social work); Elaine K. Thompson, Ph.D. (psychology); Judith Casey ’79 (physical education); Geraldine K. Velasquez, Ph.D. (graphic design); and Claribel Young, Ph.D. (history).
Provost Bill Behre also honored English professor Pamela Rader, Ph.D., with the Virginia Graham Award for outstanding teaching, leadership and mentoring. Dr. Behre noted her contributions as a faculty member who not only teaches but gives students invaluable exposure and opportunities to pursue their passion. During spring break 2015, she even led students on a literary tour of Paris.
“From poetry festivals to multi-ethnic and global literature activities, she does more than bring the world into the classroom,” he said. “She also takes students out into the world.”
Choosing the Unexpected, Pursuing Possibility
Undergraduates began their special day on May 21 with a Baccalaureate Mass, led by GCU trustee Reverend Monsignor Casimir H. Ladzinski. The homily was delivered by Deacon James J. Knipper, also a university trustee and a 2015 graduate of GCU’s Master of Arts in Theology program.
Based on scripture from John 6, Mr. Knipper spoke passionately about the Eucharist and how, as believers, GCU graduates are uniquely equipped to embrace its power.
“The Eucharist, without serving others, without reaching those in the margin, is just Eucharist,” he said. “Likewise, your diploma without a commitment to be the body of Christ together with others becomes just a piece of paper, hardly worth the ink that is written on it.”
At the ceremony in GCU’s Wellness Center, graduating senior Lindsay Taft, who served as president of the Student Government Association (SGA), talked about unexpected choices.
The Brick, New Jersey, native thought she would stick with familiar high school friends when she enrolled at GCU in 2011, but that wasn’t the case. And although she planned to major in nursing, it soon became clear that she loved business instead. Similarly, she joined the SGA to advocate for commuters, never expecting to be president of the student body.
“Whether it was breaking away from what was comfortable, taking a risk and trying something new, or pushing my self-set limits, I took the unplanned and unpredictable road less traveled,” she said. “And if not for Georgian Court, I would never have followed those redirections or taken those leaps of faith.”
Johns Hopkins University Hospital doctor and Sister of Mercy Karen Schneider, M.D., recounted similar leaps of faith in her life as she accepted an honorary doctorate from GCU. “I really need to thank the Sisters,” Dr. Schneider said of the religious Sisters of Mercy, who encouraged her to become a doctor and to practice pediatric medicine in third-world countries. “They are the wind under my wings.”
Featured Commencement speaker and repeat GCU guest Robert Wicks, Psy.D., opened with a quote made famous by noted theologian Albert Schweitzer: “‘I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.'”
Dr. Wicks, who draws on 30 years of expertise in psychology and spirituality to help caregivers deal with the stress, is on the faculty at Loyola University Maryland. GCU also awarded him an honorary degree.
“There are five words I want to remember as you respond to your calling as a graduate of Georgian Court University,” he said, using short stories to underscore the importance of faith, humility, mindfulness/prayer, detachment, and perspective—especially in tough times.
“I promise you no less darkness, but if you are faithful in reaching out to others, and faithful to self-care, self-love, and self-knowledge, and faithful to something greater than yourself, you will be deeper and different for the rest of your life,” Dr. Wicks said. “When you take knowledge and add humility, you get wisdom. Add compassion and you get love, and love is the heart of life—God is love.”
Leading with Values
During the May 20 ceremony, graduate students listened intently to Jennifer Bumbico, a classmate and St. Mary Elementary School teacher, who earned a Master of Arts in Administration and Leadership.
“Believe it or not…We made it,” she said. “We accomplished what we thought at the beginning of our journey was impossible,” said Ms. Bumbico, who encouraged classmates to remain prayerful and to always challenge themselves. “We persevered through all the research, the internships, the coursework, the cramming, and late-night study sessions—most of this while working full time. Our diploma did not come easy, and for this we should feel accomplished. We are the few…We are blessed to have had this experience at GCU.”
Graduate students and their families—some of whom traveled from as far away as Canada, England, and Guatemala for the ceremony—also heard from Father Alphonse Stephenson, Chaplain, Brigadier General of the United States National Guard (Ret.), and conductor of the Orchestra of St. Peter by the Sea.
“After 40 years as a priest and more than 25 years as chaplain, I can tell you that faith is the only thing that keeps it all together, no matter what profession you go into,” he said. “And there is a difference between hope and faith. Each of you is smiling now and you have hope for the future. That’s wonderful, but hope is optimism with an ‘out’ clause. Faith is different.”
During the graduate ceremony, President Jeffries awarded honorary doctorates to Father Alphonse and to Sisters Academy Principal Mary Lou Miller, a lawyer and a religious Sister of Mercy, who challenged the graduates to lead and champion systemic change.
“Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself,” said Sister Mary Lou, who has a culture of high achievement at the Asbury Park-based charter school. “You are constantly on two journeys: one where you develop and utilize your skills, and the internal journey where your character is formed, forged, and refined. It is from there that you lead.”