While the number of graduates, and the family and friends cheering them on in person, was substantially less this year due to COVID-19, the scaled-down ceremonies for the Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 Commencements helped mark a return to normalcy for the Toro Nation, and were some of most intimate and heartfelt in recent memory.
Seven commencement ceremonies in all took place May 24-26 in the Tennis Stadium at Dignity Health Sports Park. To comply with public health guidelines, seating was restricted, with graduates sitting in the stands with two guests, instead of on the stadium floor. To close each ceremony, graduates were recognized individually from the stands, and were shown on video screens for all to see.
The ceremonies featured remarks from CSUDH leadership, high-achieving graduates, and keynote addresses from a group of professionally diverse alumni and friends of the university who shared their paths to success and words of encouragement with the audience.
During CSUDH’s 2020-21 Commencement, Sallyanne Payton was bestowed a California State University Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. Payton was honored for her trailblazing career in law and government, and support of arts and education. Read her story at www.news.csudh.edu/sallyanne-payton.
CSUDH President Thomas A. Parham’s positive energy and uplifting spirit never waned throughout the seven ceremonies. During his opening address, he expressed the need for graduates to avoid settling for the way things are and challenged them to “imagine what might be.”
“The human organism is in a constant state of trying to close the gap between our aspirational selves and our real selves. So, never stop growing!” he said. He also encouraged graduates to grasp for the possible, and not settle for the predictable. “Focus less on replicating privilege and more on leveraging the knowledge you discover, teach, and disseminate, so that it can be used to help resolve the social injustices that are so pervasive in this world.”
Along with traditional motivational remarks, the president served to voice the support and love everyone in attendance was feeling. At one point in his speech, Parham invited the graduates to do the one simple act many have been unable to do in the isolation the COVID-19 caused – hug their loved ones. And in an impromptu moment following Master of Education graduate Letha Wells’ student commencement speech, he welcomed Wells back to the podium to pay tribute to her resiliency upon the loss of her mother to cancer just two months before Wells completed her degree and graced the commencement stage.
One of seven students chosen to present the student commencement addresses, Wells talked about how much everyone has endured this year.
“Many of us worked from home, some of us teaching students and grading papers by day, and by night we were students turning in papers of our own for professors to grade,” she shared. “Among us are also parents who had to ensure that their children succeeded in virtual learning and were entertained long enough for us to focus during our own classes. These little ones sat in on so many of our classes that these degrees are just as much theirs as they are ours.”
Wells added that while some were with their families during the pandemic, others endured alone. “I personally endured the loss of my mother. Notice, I said ‘endured,’ past tense. You endured. I endured. We endured. We made it here today. You should be proud. Even though all of our families are not here in person with us, I know for a fact that their pride is not lessened.”
Alumnus Victor Rodriguez (B.S., Biology, 1992), who is a clinical professor in the Division of Cardiac and Vascular Surgery and director of the Aortic Center at the UC Davis Medical Center, served as a keynote speaker on May 24.
“You have come a long way, my friends, and have accomplished a great feat by graduating from this great institution,” he said. “I look at myself in your shoes when I graduated from Cal State Dominguez Hills, and like you I had a lot of dreams, a lot of ambitions, and I was determined to be somebody – to leave a mark in this world. Yes, leaving a mark in this world, in a positive way, is the greatest personal achievement a person can ever do.”
Rodriguez talked about some of his unforgettable moments as a cardiovascular surgeon and a professor of surgery who specializes in heart transplantations and complex aortic reconstructions. “I have held people’s hearts in my hands, from babies to the very old. And every single time that I do this I am humbled by the fact that these people have entrusted their lives and their babies’ lives to me.”
He also shared a story about a stressful yet successful operation he had performed on his boss that he initially had reservations about, then added, “Be confident in your abilities, be confident about what you have learned and carry it with you at all times, and know that all this learning and wisdom that these great teachers have imparted to you will serve you right.”
Rihab Shuaib, president of Associated Students, Inc. at CSUDH, reminded the crowd about a mother’s enduring love. Her parents immigrated from Ghana to the U.S. in the 1990s.
Her father was college educated and spoke English. He had a much smoother transition to local culture than her mother, who didn’t speak the language. However, she had worked in markets in Ghana since she was 12, selling food and accessories, and has always known how to run a business.
Unfortunately, Shuaib’s father died suddenly in 2009.
“We were broke and scared, but my mom did what moms do best,” said Shuaib, while her jubilant mother waved and blew kisses to her from the stands in the tennis stadium. “She picked up the pieces of our lives and made something beautiful.”
Shuaib continued. “This degree, this accomplishment does not solely belong to me. It’s confirmation that my parents’ sacrifices were not in vain, it’s hope for a better future for my family, it is inspiration for my younger siblings and cousins to follow in my footsteps, and it is a thank you to all of the teachers, professors, and staff that poured so much love and support into me. To my fellow graduates, do not forget the people who supported you through all the challenges you experienced to make it here. Thank them selflessly.”
Alumna Linda DeYampert (B.S., Business Administration, 1999), is the senior manager for Studio Environmental Health and Safety for the National Football League (NFL). She addressed the Class of 2020 on May 24 and asked them to stand and celebrate their achievements with the words “You made it!”
“It’s time to put last year behind us and to grow and learn from all that was lost. Continue to take chances and have faith in yourselves. Stretch yourselves and work hard; someone will notice you. Make your deposits in your career,” DeYampert said. “Be your best advocate, be seen, be goal oriented, and keep up with your accomplishments. …You’re fierce and you’re unafraid to use your voice. Be whatever it takes to make this a kinder, gentler world.”