Graduates couldn’t have asked for a better day to spend their last moments as GW students on the Ellipse Sunday- organizers said the Commencement ceremony was “blessed” with breezy, mid-50 degree weather.
“I give 80 percent of the credit to God,” University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said after the ceremony, which honored the 4,200 graduates of the class of 2002 and hosted more that 18,000 of their friends and family members. “If the weather’s nice, it’s hard to screw this up.”
Brown University President Ruth Simmons, who received an honorary doctorate of humanities, delivered the keynote address. Four other notables were given honorary degrees while winners of alumni, student and teaching awards were recognized in the ceremony.
Student speaker Benjamin Reno-Weber told graduates to never stop asking questions, and shared the answers he learned to his own questions, like “are sandals appropriate business attire?”
“Sadly,” he said, “no.”
Reno-Weber shared other knowledge he learned during college, such as the fact that “beer and Cheerios are a bad combination,” and urged his class to ask “deeper questions” as they graduate.
“I came (to GW) with many questions and I leave with some answers. But, more importantly, I leave with more questions, like ‘how will I serve,'” he said. “Regardless of the answer, we can be proud.”
Honorary doctor of public service Darrell Green, Washington Redskins’ All-Pro defensive back who heads a foundation to serve youth and their families, gave graduates goals he said he and his family strive for.
These included educational and economic success and the “highest level of morality, honor and integrity.”
Former history professor Lois Schwoerer, AT&T Wireless Service Chairman and CEO John Zeglis and former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Jim Hall also received honorary degrees. Hall, who now heads a D.C. law firm, has served on GW’s Aviation Institute Advisory Board. Zeglis is a former member and chairman of the Board of Trustees.
After Simmons’ address, Trachtenberg said he would let students decide, by level of applause, whether he would give a speech.
“That’s democracy in action,” he said, when graduates cheered louder for him not to speak.
Trachtenberg still spoke for about 10 minutes, reminding graduates that while “half of you have cell phones under your gowns so you can speed dial and whisper something to your friends during the boring parts,” 2 billion people have never made a phone call.
He said graduates, in four years at GW, have learned to surf the internet and “somehow resist the temptation of Snood,” a free, downloadable game.
“If you can resist Snood, you are equipped to do anything,” Trachtenberg said.
Trachtenberg will give the keynote address at the University of New Haven in Connecticut Saturday.
University Marshal Jill Kasle said the only near mishap was Simmons’ delay in upstate New York Saturday because of snow.
“Of all the things I thought I wouldn’t have to worry about – snow,” she said.
Operations Manager Jason Wilson said coordinating different GW departments is the most difficult aspect of organizing Commencement, but “it all works every year.”
He said this year, ceremony staff who parked at the Ellipse underwent Secret Service background checks, and bomb-sniffing dogs inspected all equipment trucks throughout the week.
Graduates milled around the Ellipse after Commencement, hugging
relatives and snapping pictures as GW and contracted staff removed almost 20,000 chairs from the lawn. Most agreed the morning, including Simmons’ speech, went well.
“I thought a lot of people were expecting that the speeches weren’t going to be as good as they were,” said Seth Wong, who had just received his bachelor of arts degree in international affairs.
Wong, a cheerleader for four years at GW, said he took “life lessons” away from the speeches, like being aggressive to pursue his dreams.
Graduate Kari Brown said she was “a little disappointed” when she initially heard Simmons was going to speak but said Simmons surpassed her expectations.
“She did a really good job addressing student concerns,” said Brown, who received an undergraduate environmental studies degree. “After the speech I wish she was our (University) president.”
Other students said they would have still liked to hear from someone more prominent.
Seniors Mark Porter and Pat O’Connor said they give the speech “two thumbs down.”
“She (was bold) criticizing us at our are own graduation,” said O’Connor, an English major. “Graduation speakers are graduation speakers . we might as well have had someone famous.”
-Mosheh Oinounou contributed to this report.