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The morning of May 22nd was slightly overcast, but graduates of the School of Social Work did not let that dampen their spirits. With a keen sense of anticipation that had been building for weeks, they took their place among the rest of the 2013 graduates from Columbia's schools, colleges and affiliated institutions, on Morningside Campus for the university-wide commencement ceremony.
No sun was needed for celebrating what President Lee C. Bollinger would later call "this glorious ritual in this utterly unique spot on the planet." From dusk until dawn, New York City had illuminated the tower of lights on the Empire State Building in tribute to the graduates, and now the graduates themselves—totalling some 14,000—seemed to be lit from within, overjoyed to have reached the finishing line of their rigorous studies.
And then a member of CUSSW's graduating class, Dara Taylor, took the spotlight. She had been chosen to sing the National Anthem to kick off the ceremony (watch University Commencement Webcast video: 69:33 - 71:42). Well done, Dara!
University Commencement is a centuries-old tradition in which the President of the University grants degrees en masse while also recognizing remarkable members of the Columbia community through the conferring of medals, awards, and honorary degrees.
It is Columbia tradition that the University Commencement address is always given by the President of the University, after which each of the deans asks the president to confer the degrees of their graduates.
With Alma Mater presiding, President Lee C. Bollinger told the graduates of 2013 that he had two pieces of advice for them. The first, concerning the wider world they were about to enter, was to take advantage of the "extraordinary moment" presented by the emergence of the global economy and new communications technologies. "It's like Columbia magnified exponentially," he said, while going on to add one caveat, that in the global exchange of ideas that would be required for solving the world's problems, it would be up to them, as Columbia graduates, to ensure the rights to freedom of mind and speech—rights that even Americans cannot take for granted, he said.
His second piece of advice was more personal. He expressed the wish that each of the graduating students would never relinquish the pursuit of knowledge, even as they develop and hone their expertise in particular fields. "A good life is one where you are always learning, where you are comfortable with being a student," he said.
When CUSSW Dean Jeanette Takamura rose to ask President Bollinger to grant her graduates the "degree to which they are rightfully entitled along with the rights and privileges thereto attached," she emphasized that they had "already begun to change the world"—something that distinguished them further from all the other distinguished graduates assembled for the ceremony. "They are the heart and soul and social conscience of our communities," she said. (Watch Webcast video: 129:15 - 130:56.)
CUSSW graduates responded with wild enthusiasm to the Dean's remarks, waving their bambams (also known as thundersticks). According to a member of the Student Union Executive Board, Chris Eagar-Finney (MS'13), bambams, which are often used as noisemakers at sporting events, were chosen by this year's graduation committee to represent the social worker's need for greater recognition and notice. Eagar-Finney added that the students had used them to great effect at the Morningside gathering.
Each of Columbia University’s schools and affiliates also hosts its own ceremony to individually recognize graduates for their successful completion of requirements. This year's ceremony for the School of Social Work was held at the historic Beacon Theatre, on West 74th Street and Broadway.
As the graduates lined up outside for the processional, their guests found seats while listening to the Wholly Brass jazz band as well as the audio of a video made by CUSSW's Communications Office:
In her remarks to the graduates, Dean Takamura pointed out that confluence of factors—not only globalization but also the aging of the world's populations, the rise of new religions, and new discoveries about the socioecological determinants of mental health—would influence the direction of the students' lives in future. She felt confident, however, that their Columbia education would stand them in good stead for embracing constructive change and forging a meaningful path ahead.
Echoing one of Steve Jobs's favorite quotes, she said: "Skate to where the puck will be, and we will follow you."
Keynote speaker Vernon Jordan said that the Columbia University School of Social Work occupies a special place in his heart as it was the site of the founding of the National Urban League, the leadership of which had passed to him after six decades. He had in fact followed the civil rights hero Whitney Young into the job (whose papers and commemorative bust are in the Social Work Library).
"You are today's young. You are today's Whitney Young," he told the students, pointing out that more people in our nation now live in poverty than they did in Young's own time. Instead of being part of the "me me me generation," he hoped the 2013 graduates would step up to the plate and advocate for the disadvantaged.
In addition to Jordan's speech (which received a standing ovation), highlights of the event included the conferring of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW)-New York City Chapter's National Student Award on Katherine Tineo (MS'13) for her "unwavering commitment to social work in the field of aging"; the conversion of DSWs into PhDs for several of the School's alumni; and the recitation of the Social Work Oath of Affirmation.
Also noteworthy was the music. Students marched to the stage to pick up their diplomas to the tune of Queen's power ballad, "We are the champions"; and the ceremony ended with American rapper Jay-Z's ode to his native New York, "Empire State of Mind."
As the students poured out of the darkened theatre onto the city streets, the sun was actually shining—perfect for photo ops with parents, friends, professors and other well-wishers, as can be seen in this commemorative slideshow put together by CUSSW Communications:
Dean Takamura declared in her speech: "Once Columbia, always Columbia!" Class of 2013, we wish you well and hope you will come back often and report on your progress! And if you're still in New York City, be sure to join the Happy Hour for CUSSW's recent alums, to take place on June 4 at the 79th Street Boat Basin Cafe. (Bring business cards!)
—Compiled and written by ML Awanohara