A Colonial Commencement

Commencement Speaker: Mayor Michael Bloomberg
May 15, 2011

With the U.S. Capitol as a backdrop, speakers at GW’s Commencement ceremony this morning told graduates to continue their dedication to making the world a better place, to advocate for those in need and to take chances.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered the Commencement address and received an honorary Doctor of Public Service from the university before an estimated 25,000 graduates, friends and family members.

Alumna and arts and education advocate Peggy Cooper Cafritz and attorney and civil rights pioneer William T. Coleman Jr. were also awarded honorary degrees at the ceremony.

In welcoming remarks, President Steven Knapp congratulated the graduates, many of whom came to the university in 2007 when he did. “I started when many of you were freshmen and am proud to be with you as you receive your hard-earned degrees,” he said.

W. Russell Ramsey, B.B.A. ’81, chairman of the GW Board of Trustees, and Provost Steven Lerman also offered congratulations to the class of 2011.

Dr. Lerman paid tribute to the winners of the 2011 GW Award, one of the highest honors the university can bestow. This year’s awardees were Michael King, professor of chemistry and department chair; Eydie Costantino, assistant director, finance and administration for the University Honors Program; Corbb O’Connor, B.A. ’10; and James Isom, former executive director of the University Police Department.

President of the GW Alumni Association Laura Taddeucci Downs, B.A. ’92, M.A. ’95, recognized the alumni emeriti in the audience who graduated more than 50 years ago, including John Nutter, GW’s oldest alumnus from the class of 1940.

Honorary degree recipient Ms. Cafritz, B.S. ’68, J.D. ’71, talked about her experience fighting segregation, including picketing GW sororities and fraternities that did not admit black students, and her work starting Washington, D.C.’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts. “Each of you can create if your guiding notion is to give to somebody who has less,” she said.

Mr. Coleman, a civil rights activist, public servant and attorney, said he wished he had gone to GW. “I thank the university for this great honor,” he said. “It recognizes not only what I have done, but the efforts and commitment and devotions of so many other people.”

“I congratulate each of you,” he said. “I know you will redeem some of my faults in the past and make this a better nation.”

In his address, Mr. Bloomberg said it must be a “bittersweet day” for students leaving GW.

“It just won’t be easy to leave a place where you can rub a hippo’s nose, break-dance with Big George, sit in Einstein’s lap, pet a dog named Ruffles, and buy a hot dog from a guy named Manouch,” he said. “I can see why you love it here.”

Mr. Bloomberg spoke about Sept. 11 and its place in history. He called for more bipartisanship in politics, reminding the graduates of the unity that developed in New York and around the world in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Recognizing the GW student body's commitment to public service and the members of the military in the audience, Mr. Bloomberg asked the graduates to continue fighting for the rights of all people.

“Even if it is not popular—especially when it is not popular—we have a responsibility to stand up for the rights of people to express themselves as they wish, to worship how and where they wish, and to love who they wish,” he said.

Mr. Bloomberg recognized GW students Todd Belok and Michael Komo for their efforts fighting for a repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. “The freer we are to express ourselves as individuals, the stronger we become as a nation,” he said.

He also counseled graduates to not “play it safe” and urged them to take risks.

“Wherever you're going next, there will be new rules to master and new frontiers to conquer,” he said. “And my advice is relatively simple: Continue learning. Continue asking difficult questions. Continue thinking independently. Continue volunteering your time to help others. Continue defending and enjoying the freedoms that make America great.”

Dr. Knapp concluded the ceremony by delivering his charge to the graduates—asking them to “keep alive” their commitment to service, their academic curiosity and their respect for others—and conferring their degrees.

The university-wide ceremony was just one of more than 20 events—including a doctoral hooding ceremony, Phi Beta Kappa induction and Interfaith Baccalaureate—held during GW’s Commencement weekend, May 10-15.

Dr. Knapp also celebrated with graduates in Kogan Plaza May 12 with a toast recognizing their record-breaking participation in the 2011 Senior Class Gift. The class raised more than $77,000, which will be matched by the Luther Rice Society. The funds will help support the Ron Howard Emergency Scholarship Fund, which provides aid to undergraduate students who have emergency or other financial needs that cannot be addressed with traditional financial aid.

Each school held its own celebration during Commencement weekend. Notable speakers included Mark D. Lerner, B.B.A. ’75, principal owner and vice chairman of the Washington Nationals, for the School of Business; NASA Deputy Administrator Lori B. Garver for the Elliott School of International Affairs; and former Secretary of the Treasury John W. Snow, J.D. ’67, for the Law School.

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