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Message to 2015 Grads: Don’t Live in Fear
CHESTERTOWN, MD—Addressing the Class of 2015 at Washington College’s 232nd Commencement, civil rights activist David Mixner urged the graduates to walk through their fears in order to address injustice and bring about social change. The May 16 ceremony on the campus lawn also included an honorary degree for Jordanian business leader and historian Raouf Sa’d Abujaber and the first official appearance of the College’s next president, Sheila C. Bair.
Mixner, whom Newsweek once called the most powerful gay man in America for his accomplishments as a political strategist and fundraiser, is best known as an outspoken advocate for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) equality. His best-selling memoir Stranger Among Friends shared his story of coming out at age 30 and the emotional and professional repercussions that followed. “It is an honor to be the first openly LGBT person to stand in this spot,” he told the sea of black-robed students seated before him on the campus lawn. “I stand before you as a man who, at age 69, is on the verge of at last achieving the American dream. … When I was your age, I did not think I would ever participate in that dream. It was against the law for me to adopt a child, to marry, to run for office, and to go into most public accommodations with the person I loved. Today I am here with the most important person in my life, Steven Guy, and I am on the verge of freedom. I can’t tell you how great it is to breathe the air of freedom.”
Mixner participated in countless civil rights marches and protests and has been jailed more than a dozen times for civil disobedience. “It is OK to be afraid,” Mixner told the graduating seniors. “But it’s not OK to live in fear. Fear is an excuse for inaction. It’s the people who walk through their fear who create the change we need.”
He recounted a story from decades earlier that still inspires him to keep fighting through his own fear. Knowing Mixner was terrified of heights, a wise older friend asked him to walk with him to the edge of a steep cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean to view a beautiful sunset. “We got right up to the edge, and I was really scared. My friend looked at me and said, ‘David, this is where you belong. On the edge. By the law of physics, no one can stand in front of you. And the people behind you will depend on you to describe the sunset that only you can see.’ ”
Mixner, who received an honorary degree in public service, ended by proclaiming, “Today I can stand here and say, ‘My name is David Mixner. I am a gay man. And at last I am free.’” The students responded with a standing ovation. (Watch Mixner’s remarks here.)
Raouf Sa’d Abujaber traveled from his home in Jordan to accept an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the College where both his sons earned their degrees in economics, Ziad in 1988 and Marwan in 1989. A leading figure in the Christian Arab community, he is known as a pioneering business leader, a distinguished historian of Jordan and the Middle East, and an advocate of interfaith dialogue.
Calling his honorary degree a great honor, the 90-year-old Abujaber urged the Class of 2015 to work hard and persevere. “Make honesty a golden rule of your life, keep an open mind, and never stop learning,” he counseled. “Life is a lovely experience, but the world we live in now is full of extremism, fanaticism and brutality. My generation has failed terribly, and now it is your duty to bring about the change we all pray for.” (Click here for a video of Dr. Abujaber’s remarks.)
The Washington College Alumni Association honored Charles F. “Charlie” Downs ’59 with a Citation for Excellence in Public Service. The chair of the Alumni Board, Heather Spurrier Culp ’00, read the citation that praised Downs as “that rare person who radiates joy, a joy that springs from his boundless compassion for others.” During his long and distinguished career in disabilities services — first with the Virginia Department of Rehabilitative Services and later for the City of Waynesboro — he has helped people with mental and physical challenges find the health care, jobs, housing and access to shops and parks that help them to live independently. As a volunteer, he also has helped the poor, the homeless and the elderly. “Wherever he perceives a need, Charlie goes into action,” Culp said.
“You’ve put me in a quandary,” Downs said when accepting the award. “How can I be humble when I’m bursting with pride inside?” He said he was indebted to the College for the solid foundation it provided for his career in public service and for the lifelong friendships he formed on campus. (Watch video of the citation presentation here.)
Rachel Mae Dilliplane ’15, a drama and psychology double major from Yardley, Pennsylvania, delivered the Senior Class Speech. Dilliplane, who has frequently played the role of Martha Washington in campus videos, joked about all the hardships her class had endured together, including two hurricanes and a library and a fitness center both closed temporarily for renovations during their four years. “If they couldn’t drive us away with ‘natural’ disasters, by George, they were going to do all they could to make us fat and stupid,” she quipped. “Take the road less traveled. Shoot for the stars. Avoid clichés,” she said to more laughter. “Class of 2015, let’s take the world by storm!” (Hear Dilliplane’s full speech here.)
Presiding over his last commencement before stepping down as board chair on July 1, Edward P. Nordberg, Jr. ’82 took a moment to thank Interim President Jack S. “Jay” Griswold for his “splendid job of maintaining our ship on an even keel” and for being a tireless advocate for Washington College “His characteristic warmth, caring, and friendliness toward everyone he encounters have made him countless new friends on campus and in the community. And he has been willing to take on every task and preside over every occasion with great poise and charm. I think I can say with certainty that staff meetings and board dinners have never been quite so much fun,” he concluded.
Nordberg then introduced President-elect Sheila C. Bair, the former FDIC chair whose appointment the College announced May 6, for her first public appearance on campus. “Our Presidential Search Committee, led by Richard Creighton, Class of 1973, struck gold,” said Nordberg. “Our next president possesses a perfect combination of intellect, wisdom, leadership skills, and sensibility. She is a true example of four words we celebrate in our mission statement: ‘citizen leader’ and ‘moral courage.’ I could not be happier for my alma mater, and we are extremely fortunate to have her with us this morning.”
“Hello, Washington College!” Bair shouted out playfully from the podium to begin her brief remarks. She said she was excited to be joining 232 years of Washington College tradition and encouraged the graduates to return to campus often. “Always feel free to let me know how you think I’m doing and how we can make Washington College even better and stronger. From what I have heard about you, you will speak up,” she said with a smile. “Congratulations to you and your families on your accomplishments and the diplomas you will soon receive. Like you, I am about to start a new adventure. I wish us all the best of luck.” (View President-elect Bair’s greeting here.)
The first students to receive their bachelor’s degrees were the two with the highest GPA: Sean Philip Kraus, a summa cum laude graduate who earned Department honors in history and economics, and Kendall Louise Rich, summa cum laude with departmental honors in psychology. Rich was not present to receive her diploma because she had already begun job training for her new employer, the FBI, and couldn’t get away.