Graduates’ Voices Heard before and after Commencement

Class of 2016 embrace future and draw inspiration from address by Sen. Cory A. Booker.

CCAS graduate in regalia smiling with supportive family members
Jesse Gurney (center) graduated from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences with a B.A. in communications and international affairs. Following Commencement, Mr. Gurney and his family took a detour past the White House. (Rob Stewart/Gw Today)
May 15, 2016

By Brittney Dunkins, Ruth Steinhardt and Tamara Jones

They entered the real world swept by the spring wind, the George Washington University Class of 2016, lining up to graduate Sunday with the White House behind them and the Washington Monument before them.

One symbol of power, one of glory—and in the deep blue sea of caps and gowns between them—one of promise.

Milken Institute School of Public Health graduate Sean Hurd and his sister, Misha, posed for photos as their mother looked on proudly. Mr. Hurd’s mortarboard, though robbed of a few letters by the high wind, originally read “Mom, We Did It!” (Rob Stewart/GW Today)

“This is a historical day,” said Mohamad Bourakba, waiting to receive his B.S. in finance and international business. “It’s a journey, and this is one stop. It’s exciting to get something done and move to the next stop.”

Decorated with a small American flag and the words, “The World is Yours,” his mortarboard told the story of his own odyssey, with a Magic Marker line pointing the way from his Moroccan hometown of Bzou to D.C. His parents, he said, flew 15 hours to celebrate the day with him.

The National Mall filled with more than 25,000 people as the graduates hugged, laughed and high-fived each other in the processional lines for their respective schools on a morning rinsed clear by earlier rain.

Two years ago, Anna Borgholthaus packed up her life in Idaho to begin the Master's of Professional Studies in Publishing program at the College of Professional Studies. "It was one of the best decisions I ever made," she said. "Being in D.C. helped me realize I can build my own career." (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

Street vendors did a brisk business in cellophane-wrapped bouquets and silver clusters of Mylar balloons bearing congratulations bobbed through the crowd, clutched by beaming mothers and grinning fathers. Babies slept in their strollers to the GW Symphonic Band’s triumphant lullaby, “Beethoven’s Ode to Joy,” segueing into “America the Beautiful.” Stragglers on Constitution Avenue got an unexpected tourist’s bonus when the presidential helicopter Marine One whirred overhead and set down in back of the White House.

Before the pomp of graduation day, however, came the circumstances: Women navigated puddles of sucking mud in wedge heels, while a whipping wind turned rogue mortarboards into tasseled Frisbees. Caitlin Summers caught hers after it dive-bombed the classmate in front of her.

Collecting her M.A. in global communications, Ms. Summers had a sense of déjà vu as audience members settled into their folding chairs while jumbotrons on either side of the stage streamed views of the crowd.

“It’s just as sweet the second time around,” Ms. Summers decided.

Columbian College of Arts and Sciences graduate and Senior Class Gift Campign coordinator Kristen Barnes, center, with her mother, Leslie, and father, Marcus. “We always say ‘She came, she saw, she conquered,’” Leslie Barnes said. (Rob Stewart/GW Today)

Arlene Weeks was enjoying her role as proud GW parent for the third straight year, in town for daughter Corinne’s graduation from medical school. 

“[That] year it was raining,” she recalled of Corinne’s undergraduate ceremony. Younger daughter Gillian, B.S. ’13, traveled with the rest of the family from Massachusetts to watch her sister bid a final farewell to the school they both loved.

“I don’t think it’s hit her yet,” said Gillian Weeks, who was up at 6 a.m. to help her sister get ready.

Stuck in traffic four blocks from the Mall, the three-generation Weeks clan bailed out of a minivan to hoof it the rest of the way, Arlene Weeks tripping and falling on the sidewalk in the rush. “I’m OK,” she assured everyone, flashing back to her last visit to campus, when she broke her foot during a  “spend the day in the life of a medical student” event.

“This is a historical day. It’s a journey, and this is one stop."

 -Mohamad Bourakba, B.S. GW School of Business

The last-minute discovery that Corinne’s boyfriend had forgotten a camera left her mother unrattled: “Don’t worry, Dad’s got his long lens, and everybody’s got their phones,” she said. She was likewise undaunted by the prospect of geo-caching one beloved graduate in the huge throng. “We’ll find her,” she said, confident that by now, this was one family that surely had the GW Commencement drill down pat.

Alexandra Lee’s family decided against even trying to claim seats. “It’s too late and too hard to coordinate herding nine people,” said her mother, Amy Lee, standing near the water stations at the very back of the crowd. Her daughter earned a B.A. from the School of Media and Public Affairs.

“GW has made a very big school feel small and warm and intimate,” Amy Lee said. “It’s been a great four years.”

Corocoran School of the Arts graduates Britney Segermeister and Mariana Rivera had a peaceful moment at the foot of the Washington Monument before the start of Commencement.  Ms. Segermeister will continue her photography studies in graduate school in Boston, and Ms. Rivera is heading to the Sotheby's Institute in New York City to study art business. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

At the tail end of the Elliott School procession, Hector Hernandez stood quietly alone, a bright woven scarf draped over his shoulders—a gift his sister made from cloth she got in the rural town his parents left before he was born.

“I brought this part of Mexico with me today to remember my roots and celebrate our culture,” Mr. Hernandez said, recalling a childhood spent moving back and forth across the border from his native Midland, Texas, back to the ancestral family home in Guanajuato.

“I wanted to have this because culture isn’t just your identity, it’s your survival kit, and I wouldn’t be here without it,” he added, flipping over his mortarboard to show more of the treasured cloth tucked inside. The ceremony marked his parents’ first visit to D.C., he said, crediting the “strong work ethic they instilled in me from a young age” for his completion of a degree in international affairs and economics. Mr. Hernandez said he planned to join a brother in Seattle, with hopes of eventually helping immigrants with a future in the law or public policy.

"GW has made a very big school feel small and warm and intimate. It’s been a great four years.”

-Amy Lee, B.A. School of Media and Public Affairs

Clay Warren, the Chauncey M. Depew Professor of Communication at GW, stood on the Washington Monument hilltop following the ceremony as his son and daughter took pictures of each other in their matching caps and gowns, the Lincoln Memorial visible in the distance.

“Imagine,” he said. “This is my home university, and I’ve been here a long time. Now I have two children graduating in the same year. You can’t get more special than that.”

Born in Maryland, Dr. Warren went to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, then left and eventually found himself with “a Danish wife, a Canadian-born daughter and a Canadian dog. And I thought, ‘Where can we be in the United States and make this all work?’ Washington, D.C., was the natural choice.”

GW graduates Boris-Alban Seka, Ellis Yarboi and and Elorm Sallah pose with the Ghanaian flag on Constitution Avenue following Commencement. The three friends cemented their bond as members of the GW African Student Association. (Rob Stewart/GW Today)

His son, Daniel, received his B.A. in psychology the same time his daughter, Laura, who is seven years older, collected her M.A. Ed. H.D. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.

“Commencement was a nice way to bring us all together in this one moment before we are all working and embarking on future plans,” said Ms. Warren. “A final hurrah. My favorite moment was definitely Cory Booker. His themes, the heart of it is what I am pursuing myself in counseling—being kind to others and trying to change the world on a micro level.”

The graduating class comprised students from 50 countries, with guests who had traveled from as far away as China, Saudi Arabia and Côte d'Ivoire. Polyglot voices rippled through the crowd – parental exhortations in French and Arabic, group consternation in Russian, photo ops in Cantonese and Spanish.

Stephen Freeman graduated from GW Law with an L.L.M. in energy and environmental law. Originally from Liberia, he is a practicing lawyer in Washington, D.C. Mr. Freeman’s four-year-old daughter, Saige-Ade, and his wife, Marya, joined him at the ceremony. Asked if she were proud of her father, Saige-Ade broke into a beaming smile and nodded. (Rob Stewart/GW Today)

Ellis Yarboi, a graduate of the School of Engineering and Applied Science with a B.S. in computer science, stood in a crowd of family and friends, the Ghanaian flag wrapped around his shoulders. His sister Erika, a GW alumna, was nearby. 

Mr. Yarboi will fly back to Ghana for the summer, a welcome break from a whirlwind end to his last semester at GW. "I had work up until last Wednesday. I even had to work on my birthday," he said. "But it's cool. It was stressful but worth it.  

"I'll miss the people I've met more than anything,” he added. “We've grown up so much with each other; these last four years have been transformative. They’ve really influenced my life."

After the ceremony, Jesse Gurney and his family threaded their way through the crowd of tourists and fellow graduates in front of the White House, enjoying the strengthening sun.

 Julia Hawley will celebrate her 40th high school reunion this summer, but before Ms. Hawley hits that milestone, she earned a master's in landscape design from the College of Professional Studies.  (Logan Werlinger/GW Today) 

“I thought what Senator Booker said was really important—as we move forward it’s important not only to think about how to solve problems on a larger scale, but how to bring light to our communities,” said Mr. Gurney, who graduated from the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences with a B.A. in communications and international affairs. A grand prize winner of the Planet Forward video competition this year, he will present on sustainability at the United Nations in the fall.

Julie Hawley found her passion for landscape design when her children were in elementary school in Arlington,Va. and she worked in the habitat gardens there.

“This was a natural progression for me,” she said of her M.A. in Landscape Design from the College of Professional Studies. “It’s been a struggle, but I did it. I was helping my kids with college applications while I was trying to use a computer.”

When the big moment finally came, the graduates stood, robes billowing, seeming to hesitate en masse for a moment before tossing their caps into the air, knowing the wind was waiting to carry them away.