Marcus Andrews woke up at 6:30 a.m. on the morning of the George Washington University’s 2015 Commencement and began preparing to head toward the National Mall. He had neatly laid out his clothes in his Northeast Washington, D.C., home the night before, just like he always does.
This time, the outfit included a regal black cap and gown.
It drizzled as he made his way across GW’s impressive graduation site. His sister snapped pictures that captured the full scope of the Commencement ceremony: The thousands of chairs lined before a bright blue stage, the Washington Monument towering in the background.
Mr. Andrews encountered a friend who enthusiastically congratulated him. “This is it!” she shouted. “End of the road!”
“Well, no—not yet,” Mr. Andrews replied with a smile. The day’s ceremony was actually just the beginning.
Right in Obama’s Backyard
At 19, Mr. Andrews was one of the youngest members of the GW Class of 2015. He received his bachelor’s degree after attending the School Without Walls Early College program. He joined about 6,000 students from GW’s undergraduate and graduate programs in a Commencement ceremony on the National Mall Sunday morning.
The ceremony featured speeches from Apple CEO Tim Cook and student speaker Capt. Richard Ruiz. GW is the only university that holds its ceremony on the iconic Washington site where the audience can see the White House in one direction and the Washington Monument in another.
“I tried to explain it to people at my internship and they just could not understand what it’s like to graduate on the Mall in Obama’s backyard,” School of Business graduate Christie Dougherty said as she arrived on the grounds.
Crowds began to trickle onto the National Mall around 7:30 a.m. Students showed up in various states of prepared: Some endured the muggy weather dressed proudly in their robes. Others flung their garments casually over their arms. People cocked their heads up at foreboding gray clouds and surveyed small puddles of precipitation that had collected on a few seats.
The threat of inclement weather added to the event’s mix of exhilaration, apprehension and, in some cases, stress. Biology major Abigail Carter was busy dialing her parents, who had just flown in from Austin, Texas She forgot to hand them their tickets in the rush of celebration events throughout the week. Her query of “Hey, where are you?” echoed across the park as other students held their cell phones to their ears and tried to locate family members.
“You’ll Make Me Cry, Too”
Angie Meyer was among the family members eager to revel with graduates. She came from Fargo, N.D., to watch her son, Grant Hauschild, receive his master’s in public policy analysis. Mr. Hauschild is a legislative assistant to Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.).
“He’s been doing this since he was 13,” she said. “That’s when he first started working in politics.”
How does she feel about seeing her son receive his master's degree today? “Oh my gosh, I just—” she began, and then had to stop.
“Please don’t cry! You’ll make me cry, too,” intervened Mr. Hauschild’s fiancée, Grace Torguson.
Emotions ran high among students, too.
“I’m trying to control it because I don’t want my makeup to get ruined. I’m honored to finally get it done and be a part of this event today,” said Farishta Boura, who received her degree in religion, biology and chemistry.
As the Columbian College’s graduates began to line up for their procession, Sophie Boslough, Avery Youmans, Zach Shinske and Brynne Peluso stood in a huddle and talked about their time together the past four years.
“What’s that cliché everyone keeps using? ‘Don’t cry because it’s over, laugh because it happened.’ I seriously just want to do both,” Ms. Boslough said. “We’ve all grown so much as people. And now we’re leaving.”
The group laughed at how abrupt the sentence sounded, but Ms. Peluso quickly chimed in, “No, but it’s really exciting. We have our whole lives ahead of us.”
Mr. Shinske described GW as “supportive,” and said he built a community during his time at the university.
“It’s been easy to call this place home for the last four years,” he said.
Although many GW students called D.C. “home” during their academic careers, some of Sunday’s graduates lived in locations thousands of miles from the capital while earning their degrees.
Tracy Mitchell, a nurse of 24 years and a U.S. Coast Guard veteran, enrolled in GW’s online master’s program in health care quality while working as a director of quality support at a health system in Springfield, Mo.
Ms. Mitchell stood in line with other graduates from her online program and admitted to being emotional about the ceremony and overjoyed to finally meet her classmates in person. Her husband, 21-year-old son (a junior in college) and brother flew to D.C. with her for the Commencement program.
“It’s been a long journey,” she said. “It’s been nice to show my son that you can be a mom and work full time and go to college. If I can do it, he can do it.”
Brian Z. Porter was in the Army for “26 years, six months and 27 days.” In January, before his service had ended, he enrolled in the masters of security leadership program at the College of Professional Studies. “When I had a couple months left in the army, I enrolled in the program, and then I just kept at it.” Sgt. Maj. Porter returned from a security assessment in Iraq on Friday, was at his home in North Carolina by Saturday and drove with his wife Shawn and daughter Bailee to attend his graduation Sunday morning. On Monday, he begins a new job as a planning and exercise specialist in Fort Bragg, N.C. (Photo: Zach Marin for GW Today)
Tim Cook: “Identify a North Star”
By 9 a.m., the sky began to look less ominous. Students shook off their gowns as the sun came out and used crumpled programs as makeshift fans. All of a sudden, Columbian College graduate Shira Herald bounced toward a group of her friends, exclaiming, “I just saw Tim Cook!” She had walked by him as he was doing a couple video interviews before his speech.
“I called out to him, and he smiled at me and said, ‘It’s good to be here!’ ” she said.
Excitement for the Apple CEO was everywhere. Finance major Will Ellingson revealed he has snuck into every Commencement ceremony during his time at GW and has seen Brian Williams, Kerry Washington and José Andrés. But he thought Mr. Cook was among GW’s most extraordinary recent speakers.
Mr. Cook’s speech did not disappoint. School of Business graduate Mihret Amare said it was relatable, and that it spoke to everybody at the ceremony. His call to “identify a North Star” also inspired her to propel change in East Africa, where she hopes to work.
“I want to be on the front lines, implementing that change,” she said.
Student speaker Capt. Richard Ruiz also captivated the audience with his story of becoming the first person in his family to graduate after being deployed to Afghanistan twice.
“The power behind his words, his enthusiasm for the school and for all of us, that really motivated me,” School of Business graduate Dianna Leyton said.
Anjelica Tellechea graduated from CPS with her masters in paralegal studies, a combination of advanced legal research and general professional skills. A lobbyist based in Sacramento, Calif., Ms Tellechea survived Stage IV cancer, put her ex-husband through medical school and her daughter through college. “Finally, I said ‘You know, this is my time,’” she said. “I was Stage IV, and I didn’t even know if I would even be here. So I am living a dream.” (Photo: Zach Marin for GW Today)
The Next Chapter
Once the ceremony concluded, families dispersed across the National Mall to take pictures in front of monuments. Some made their way toward GW lunch mainstays, like Founding Farmers, while others embraced a touristic experience and hit hot dog carts along the streets. They walked away in herds, chattering excitedly about their future plans.
Mr. Andrews also left Commencement thinking about the future. His starts at 9 a.m. Monday. He will be boarding a plane to Atlanta, Ga., for an 11-week internship at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He flies back to GW in August to start his master’s at the Milken Institute School of Public Health as a Presidential Administrative Fellow. He took in the sweeping views of the monument one last time, but his mind was already on the bags he had to pack and the flight that would lead to a brand new experience.
“I’m thankful, and now I have time to think about the journey,” he said. “I’m excited to see what the next steps are: the next half chapter in Atlanta and then the next full chapter of my life after that.”