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Ursinus Celebrates 146th Commencement

Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and banjo player Rhiannon Giddens delivered the commencement address during a ceremony in which 320 graduates turned their tassels and received bachelor’s degrees on the Berman Museum lawn.

The sunny May 18 morning served as the perfect backdrop for parents and families coming together in celebration of the final chapter of the graduates’ journey at the 146th Ursinus commencement ceremony.

Student speaker Katarina Gereda shared an anecdote from her freshman orientation. “An Ursinus ambassador once told me, ‘The first four days will feel like four years, and the next four years will feel like four days,’” she said. “I politely smiled, but thought, ‘Yeah, right. What’s so special about this place that makes time go by that fast?’ But after four years, I get it.”

Gereda spoke of one of her mentors, Reverend Charles Rice, who taught her to challenge herself so vigorously that she would leave the library wiping the sweat from her brow and saying, “Wow, what a good workout!”

“All those hours - in classes, studying, reading, writing papers - they have all led up to this day, this diploma, this degree,” she added.

Giddens, who was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters, also spoke about hard work and how the path to your goals doesn’t always go as planned. It’s a topic she knows a bit about.

“A few lucky folks are born with an unerring sense of what they are here to do; the rest of us have to search for it. I am an interesting example,” said Giddens.

Initially trained as an opera singer, Giddens found that she still hadn’t found her purpose. “I had this nagging feeling that I wasn’t being of service by becoming an opera singer. What did I have to offer that countless other sopranos couldn’t do as well or better?”

“From opera I became immersed in Celtic music and the culture of Scotland; I learned how to sing in Gaelic; I became a square dance caller; and then I found the banjo, and it all clicked into place.”

Giddens, who called herself “a teller of lost stories, a finder of truths, a connector of the past to the present,” is known for enriching the understanding of American music. She has made a career out of revitalizing and invigorating music reflecting the African American experience and introducing new audiences to the black banjoists and fiddlers whose influences have been left out of popular narratives of the lineage of folk and country music.

“Each of you are already on the path of your journey, your exploration of who you are in order to find out what you are meant to do in this life,” said Giddens. “Don’t be afraid of a challenge. Regardless of the outcome, you will learn more than you ever will doing something you know exactly how to do,” she said. “As my mother once said to me, ‘Do nothing for power, property or prestige, but rather what makes your heart sing.’” (View her full commencement remarks at the :55 minute mark in the commencement ceremony video.)

Nancy Conger, who was a trustee of Ursinus from July 2002 to June 2010, received an honorary doctor of humane letters in absentia. The mayor of Collegeville, Rev. Dr. Aidsand Wright-Riggins, who delivered the keynote address during the baccalaureate ceremony, was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity.

The morning continued with three outstanding faculty members were also recognized for their hard work and dedication with awards that celebrated their mentoring, teaching, and scholarly achievement.

The H. Lloyd Jones Jr. Award for Excellence in Mentoring and Advising was awarded to Dr. Becky Jaroff ’81, associate professor and chair of English, whose mentorship went above and beyond to encourage her students to step outside their comfort zones and achieve their goals. Next, the Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award was given to Cindy Harris, an associate professor of business and economics, known for her one-of-a-kind teaching methods and safe environment within her classroom. Finally, Patrick Hurley, associate professor and chair of environmental studies, was presented the Laughlin Award for Professional Achievement in honor of his abundant scholarly accomplishments.

Dean Mark Schneider also acknowledged and thanked retiring faculty member Victor Tortorelli, professor of chemistry and holder of the Samuel H. and Anna M. Hess Professorship of Chemistry.

Following the conferring of the honorary degrees, the class of 2019 crossed the stage to receive their diplomas before exiting the tent through a gauntlet of their peers, professors and mentors, just as they had done at the start of their Ursinus journey during convocation as first-year students. –By Mary Lobo ’15