Eagerly emerging from deep within the StubHub Center Tennis Stadium tunnel like teams about to compete in a sporting event, California State University, Dominguez Hills’ (CSUDH) Class of 2015 waved to throngs of family, friends, faculty and staff as they walked toward their seats amid rumbling cheers during five college-based commencement ceremonies. The difference: victory was already theirs.
After taking their seats, students listened to words of well wishes, personal reflections from their own college years, and offerings of insightful advice that trumpeted from the platform party, Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker, and local and national civic and business leaders. For two days, May 15 and 16, the praise rolled out quickly and steadily for the graduates’ staunch determination, perseverance, and many successes at CSUDH.
After providing a welcome on behalf of the university, CSUDH President Willie J. Hagan gave an inspiring speech for the graduates that emphasized the importance of taking the necessary risks to succeed, learning to live with uncertainty, and avoiding the “paralysis” that accompanies self-doubt, fear of failure and negative self-judgment.
“It’s all about discovering who you truly are at your core. Looking deep inside yourself to find what’s uniquely you, and building your life from there. When you understand and embrace who you truly are as a person, good intrinsic traits like compassion, gratitude, empathy and tolerance come to the fore,” Hagan told the crowd of graduates and their loved ones. “When you find the uniquely you, when you are no longer searching for yourself, it will be easier to see that you are part of a larger community, and that self-justice is the foundation upon which you build social justice.”
With one of the largest gatherings of the nearly 4,000 graduates that is the Class of 2015, the College of Business Administration and Public Policy kicked off commencement with fanfare, and a keynote speech from Maria Contreras-Sweet, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration and a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet.
During her address, Contreras-Sweet, who also served a five-year tenure as California’s Secretary of Business, Transportation and Housing, offered a special tribute to immigrants and their families, underserved communities, as well as words of advice for women entrepreneurs.
“For some of you the journey to this day began in another country. It may have been your parents, it may have been your grandparents, or their parents, but someone wanted America for you,” said Contreras-Sweet. “I remember trying to build bridges in this state when so many businesses couldn’t get capital, counseling or contracts. So what did I do? I did what every-other women thinks to do; if it doesn’t work, you start your own. I started the first woman-launched bank [in the U.S.] in two generations.
“Now I invite you on the journey of entrepreneurship, but wherever you go, I ask you not to be indifferent. You can have a different view, but don’t be indifferent to what’s taking place.”
Forest Whitaker, an Academy Award winning actor, honored and respected humanitarian, director and producer—and native son of the City of Carson—was conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters during the College of Arts and Humanities commencement ceremony. He was hooded by President Hagan, with assistance from Sy Abrego, a California State University trustee, and Ellen Junn, CSUDH provost and vice president for academic affairs.
Whitaker, who lived just “yards” from CSUDH as a child, began his remarks by sharing personal stories from his youth.
“I have a very deep connection to this place. When I was a kid, my family lived right across the street from here—not more than a couple hundred yards from where I’m standing,” he said. “For almost 10 years, I would walk through this campus every day. I grew up here. My big sister went to school and graduated here. So being with you today—it literally feels like I’m coming home.”
In 2014, Whitaker and CSUDH entered into a collaborative partnership through the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI) to jointly create a conflict resolution education curriculum for WPDI’s Domestic Harmonizer Program.
In quoting novelist Walter Kirn, “Life is an upstream, not an uphill, battle, and it results in just one story: how, and alongside whom, one used his paddle,” Whitaker drew parallels for the graduates to the need for “honesty and integrity” through life’s journey.”
“There will always be forces—things like jealousy, greed, and anger—trying to push you away from the ideas you believe in and the causes you care most about. Life is an active, not a passive, journey, and much of the time, you will have to paddle against these currents,” said Whitaker. “Whenever you feel lost, remember that what matters, in the end, is how you paddle.”
Theatre arts major Audrey Edwards enjoyed hearing about Whitaker’s personal connections to the campus and was encouraged by the success he has achieved as a local African-American artist.
“He had so many wise words. He showed us that no matter where you come from you can become a success, or even a larger than life Academy Award-winning actor,” said Edwards. “He’s also impacted so many people’s lives in such great ways. He is really a good example of what we all can strive to be.”
Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, addressed the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences. The first generation college student emphasized the value of hard work, “thinking globally,” and finding a passionate mentor.
“It’s always been my belief that hard work will take you places, that hard work builds successful careers. There is no substitute for it. Looking back, it’s a strong work ethic that’s been at the core of both my personal and professional development,” said Seroka. “No matter what stage of your career—whether you are starting out, switching gears to an entirely new profession, or completing your degree to help advance in your current career—strong mentorship can be a very valuable thing. When you reach critical junctures in your career, rely on these mentors as your sounding boards for much-needed, independent and often very wise counsel.”
Laura Barragan, who graduated magna cum laude in fall 2014 with her B.S. in biology and an emphasis in molecular and cellular biology, plans to go into dentistry and currently works in a dental office.
“It took me a long time to get to graduation. I worked full-time most of my college career, so getting my degree is something that’s extraordinary and very special to me,” said Barragan. “This university taught me discipline and hard work. Our professors instilled in me the importance of always moving forward and striving for something better, which will help me a great deal in my professional career.”
Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) President Chris Fernandez, who addressed all five commencement ceremonies, asked the graduates to envision their futures and take advantage of their dreams while they’re still fresh and unwavering.
“Everyone has different goals. A lot of us are seeking a swift return on our investment: a decent job, possibly a seat in grad school, and at the end of the day, happiness and a safe solid life. But I also urge every single one of you today to think about where you could be five years from now in your perfect world,” said Fernandez. “This is our great advantage, because we know we don’t live in a perfect world, and yet we haven’t been chewed up and spat out enough times to except it. So we can dream big— dreams are free.”
Other keynote speakers offered words of wisdom and encouragement to the graduates in equal measure. Bill Shumard, president and CEO of Special Olympics of Southern California addressed the College of Health, Human Services and Nursing; Tim Allen, executive director of the Carlston Family Foundation, offered advice to the College of Education.
CSUDH alumnus Joe Buscaino (2000, B.A., communications), who is in his second term as a councilmember for L.A.’s 15th District that includes his hometown of San Pedro, shared with the College of Arts and Humanities his family’s history, such as his hardworking parents’ struggles as immigrants from Italy, and his deep roots in the local community. He also underscored for the graduates the importance of service and giving back.
“Whatever career you choose, whatever path you take, wherever you end up living, your personal empowerment, success and support come from your participation in community. It doesn’t just take a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to support your aspirations,” he said. “Whatever you do when you leave here today, I strongly urge all of you to participate in your community and become a valuable member because this is how you will capitalize on the investment you have made here at CSU Dominguez Hills and build for yourself a life worth living.”
Haven’t had enough pomp and circumstance? Relive all five 2015 commencement ceremonies below.