There's nothing like an outdoor party, especially one that officially kicks off the rest of your life. The unseasonably crisp (mid-50s) conditions did little to cool the spirits of the thousands of graduates, family and friends who gathered on Homewood Field on Thursday, May 22, for Johns Hopkins' 127th commencement.
Temperatures, in fact, were of little concern for an assembly of people hoping to stay dry, as both weather forecasts and overcast conditions strongly suggested rain. But positive thinking prevailed over Mother Nature, as not a drop fell.
The Class of 2003 helped usher in a new tradition, as the morning's universitywide degree conferring event, Homewood undergraduate and several other diploma ceremonies--previously held under a big tent--took place at Homewood's open-air stadium.
The new commencement site was chosen to offer a larger, more festive and dramatic setting. By most accounts, it did.
With family and friends of the students watching from the stands, the universitywide degree conferring began with augmented pageantry as soon-to-be-graduates and colorfully robed administration, faculty and honored guests passed through the base of a 40-foot tower on their way to seats on the field and on stage. The eyes of the students darted left, right and upward to locate loved ones and to take in the splendor as flashbulbs popped, music rang out and cheers echoed.
"Wow. Today was a great day," said Amani Nuru-Jeter, who received a Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "I was waiting for this day for the past four years. I feel like this is really the beginning of my life."
Nuru-Jeter's mother, Njeri Nuru-Holm, described a daughter who had just been given wings.
"It was hard not to cry. It has been a long road, and now she's well on her way," said Nuru-Holm, who is vice president for student and minority affairs at Cleveland State University. "It's like, this is why we parents are here. This is it, the big day. I think Johns Hopkins has prepared her extremely well."
To her mother's comments, Nuru-Jeter added a touch of humility.
"I'm turning 30," she said, "so [my parents] are glad I'm finally going to get a job."
University President William R. Brody, as is his custom, addressed the graduates gathered for the universitywide ceremony. In his address, Brody spoke of the vital need to retain personal and academic freedoms in a time when civil liberties are being tested. He targeted the early part of his remarks to those who lived through McCarthyism and drew connections to new legislation that allows the government greater access to personal records and restricts the rights of internationals who choose to study in the United States. He cautioned those gathered of a return to a "guilt by association" and a "you're either for us or against us" mentality.
"Grandparents, having been down this route before, are we willing to go there again?" Brody said. "I hope not, but I observe that this is a largely rhetorical question, for it's the graduates themselves who must decide this matter. It is up to them to decide how free, how open, how curious and brave and inclusive a society they wish to create. Let us hope they come down on the side of our better angels. Let us hope today that they learn from our mistakes."
The close of the president's address elicited an extended ovation, with some attendees taking to their feet.
After the event, Brody's words still seemed to reverberate.
"The speech was outstanding; it was right on," said Esther Halvorson-Hill, who was there to witness her daughter, Heather Halvorson, receiving her medical degree. "His going back and using that example from history was quite an eye-opener. I was a kid, but I still remember a lot of that."
Halvorson-Hill, like many others, said it was a very emotional day.
"I couldn't believe my baby was going to be a doctor now," she said. "It brought tears to my eyes, and I didn't think it would."
If the morning's ceremony could be classified as a James Taylor sort of affair, the afternoon was more James Brown. The jubilant undergraduate ceremony found the stands nearly packed to capacity. The noise meter went up a few notches, too. Students entered Homewood field to a bagpipes and drums accompaniment, while raining down upon them were the screams, whistles and "hoo-haws" of well-wishers. The animated students--many of whom saw their images cast upon the two large projection screens that flanked the stage--waved, blew kisses and made raise-the-roof gestures to the cameras.
Michael Bloomberg, mayor of New York and former chairman of the university's board of trustees, gave the ceremony's keynote address.
The Johns Hopkins alumnus from the class of 1964 cleverly opened his remarks with what he referred to as the two words "that summarize everything that is our hopes and our dreams," two words "that symbolize the wonderful people from Johns Hopkins."
"Go Jays!" shouted Bloomberg, in support of the men's lacrosse team's upcoming Final Four appearance.
On a more serious note, Bloomberg counseled the graduates to seek out jobs that will both test and reward them and to embrace a challenge, rather than skirt it.
"When you're just getting started, don't worry so much about your salary. Even though you now have to pay the bills, your first job should be something that will teach, expand, humble and exhilarate," he said. "Take the job that teaches you the most, not the one that pays a few dollars more."
Once a job is secured, Bloomberg said, the challenge is to make the most of the opportunity, and to do so with a moral compass.
"My message here is don't just hold yourself to high professional standards; hold yourself to high ethical standards," he said. "You read in the papers every day about the scandals involving people who didn't. They may have known their businesses, or field of study, but they weren't honest. Things won't always go smoothly in life, but acting on principle and integrity will carry you through the tough times."
Bloomberg used the middle part of his speech to give graduates a snapshot of his life. He told them of the working-class kid from the Boston area who became a success on Wall Street, only to be fired at age 39. Literally a day later he founded the company that would become a media giant, Bloomberg LLP. Then, at the height of his success, Bloomberg changed careers again, opting this time to join the world of public service. That choice, he said, "is providing me with a sense of satisfaction unlike any other I've ever had."
He said that despite the prevailing thoughts that he would fail at all his ventures, he has succeeded through determination, focus and a willingness to follow his dreams.
"I hope you all have the opportunity to try something new, against all conventional wisdom, and that you find the courage to go for it, too," he said.
For more about commencement ceremonies, including President Brody's speech, divisional speakers and honorary degree recipients, go to www.jhu.edu/news_info/news/commence03.