Ellipse provides `special’ education

“Why did you choose GW?”

It seems like I have been asked that question hundreds of times in the three years I’ve been at this institution of higher learning. And I usually rattle off some wisecrack answer such as “because I didn’t get into Northwestern.”

I never have been completely sure why I chose this school. It was just a feeling that when I got here, this place was special. I’ve never been able to put my finger on exactly what was special about it. Until this weekend.

During the past couple of days, this University has shown me the definition of special. The class of 1999 was toasted throughout this city over the weekend, and I was happy to be along for the ride for much of it. I saw why GW is unique.

My “special” education started at Monumental Celebration. No, it wasn’t the inflatable chili pepper or finding out who was under the Big George costume. It was seeing the University honor its graduates in a place with so much history.

And what still fascinates me is that history-makers choose to speak at GW on a regular basis. I recently began subscribing to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and I receive an updated list of Commencement speakers at my e-mail account every day.

I have nothing against Andy Rooney or Sammy Sosa – I think they will be fine speakers. But do they compare to Bob Dole or Desmond Tutu? We have been fortunate – our location and connections have made this campus an important stop on the tour for many of the country’s most significant leaders. People should be able to remember fondly the words of wisdom from their Commencement speaker. I am sure no matter how many home runs Sosa hits, he cannot provide the same wisdom as someone with the experiences of Tutu.

But more significant than what we hear on Commencement day is where we hear it. The single event that separates The George Washington University from the rest of the college choices is the location of Commencement.

As I sat in the sunlight, I looked around me. Amid the happy graduates and families were two incredible symbols – the Washington Monument and the White House.

So this is the reason for all the fighting. The graduates who yelled and screamed their way back onto the Ellipse last year were right. It may not be a long-standing tradition to graduate here, but for the short time the plan has been adopted, it has grown to mean a great deal to GW students. There is magic in the air on Commencement day. Being sandwiched between two great landmarks reminds students of the reason for their hard work.

It just wouldn’t mean the same thing in the MCI Center. For many people on this campus, being part of the city and using it for both work and pleasure has been a key component of their years here. It is fitting to honor their achievements where they have thrived.

I recently noticed that the University stopped guaranteeing a Ellipse Commencement in their brochures to undergraduates. I hope that is only a cautionary change. I realize there is always a lot of concern with promising an outdoor celebration, and I know it would be easier to plan Commencement if there was no risk of bad weather. But GW is a part of Washington, D.C., and we deserve to graduate in all its glory. This is where students realize what they have just accomplished – and this place where they lived, learned and worked – is truly special.

Matt Berger

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