More than 5,000 students, flanked by thousands of family members and friends, became GW graduates at Sunday morning’s Commencement ceremony under a nearly cloudless sky on the Ellipse.
About 90 percent of undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degree recipients went to the ceremony, which was attended by more than 23,000 people, University officials said.
GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg conferred honorary degrees on four distinguished speakers – oncologist Luther Brady, physicist Leon Lederman, Shakespearean scholar and former GW professor Gail Kern Paster and former Gen. John Shalikashvili.
Inclement weather made administrators unsure about whether graduation would be held on the Ellipse Sunday morning until about 6:30 a.m., said James Hess, director of University Events. Shortly after 8 a.m., a slight drizzle gave way to humid, sunny conditions that held throughout the ceremony.
Despite a few empty seats, Trachtenberg said he was pleased with the ceremony’s pleasant conditions.
“I thought it was great … I’m indebted to whoever was in charge of the weather,” Trachtenberg said in an interview following the 90-minute event. “I’m greatful the cicadas didn’t assault us in respect for the class of 2004.”
As in recent years, event organizers secured the MCI Center for graduation in case adverse weather conditions forced them to hold the ceremony indoors.
“We knew we could hold the ceremony outside unless the weather really turned for the worse,” Hess said after the event.
The ceremony featured speeches by University officials, students and honorary degree recipients. Charles Manatt, chairman of GW’s Board of Trustees, stressed the importance of ethics to graduates.
“Stay on course and stay on message,” Manatt said.
During the ceremony, Trachtenberg awarded three professors – Shoko Hamano, Peter Reddaway and Philip W. Wirtz – with the Oscar and Shoshana Trachtenberg Prize, which is named after his parents.
Although the majority of those who received awards were scholars or professionals, several students were also recognized for their accomplishments.
Allison Robbins and Graham Murphy, both seniors, received the Manatt-Trachtenberg Prize for urging social reforms during their time at GW.
Robbins, a member of the Progressive Student Union, was honored for her efforts to secure higher wages and greater health benefits for GW employees. She has led several protests against GW, including a March Marvin Center sit-in that sought to raise awareness about what she said are the substandard working conditions experienced by GW’s hourly employees.
“I read in The Hatchet that she considered not taking the award as the ultimate form of protest,” Trachtenberg said. “I’m glad she reconsidered.”
Murphy, a Hatchet columnist and president of The Out Crowd, a gay advocacy organization, received the prize for his efforts to expand the University’s “social consciousness,” Trachtenberg said.
Two student speakers, senior Adam Greenman and graduate student L. Trenton Marsh, reflected on their years at GW and offered words of advice to graduates.
Greenman said he had the best times at GW when he was with friends.
“It isn’t about the view, it’s who you take in the view with,” Greenman said.
“There are both voices and echoes in this world,” Marsh said. “Please do not be an echo … speak up.”
In Trachtenberg’s speech, called the “Charge to the Graduates,” he said the University prides itself on its sense of community.
“There’s something very deep that binds us … George Washington University is our common denominator,” Trachtenberg said.
Trachtenberg gave out four honorary degrees during the ceremony.
Brady, who completed his undergraduate and doctoral work at GW during the 1940s, was the first to receive a degree, a doctor of fine arts. A leading oncologist and namesake of the Media and Public Affairs Building’s second floor art gallery, Brady has had an “involvement with the arts (that) has been as prolific as his medical career,” Trachtenberg said.
Lederman, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1988, was awarded a doctor of public service for his ability to meld the worlds of science and education.
“You read Einstein’s Theory of Relativity at ten years old … but you’re keenly aware that most of us did not,” Trachtenberg joked.
In brief remarks, Lederman encouraged “life-long learning.”
“I want to enlist you in a different kind of war – a war on ignorance,” he said.
Paster, who was an English professor for 28 years at GW before becoming head of the Folger Shakespeare Library in downtown D.C., received a doctor of letters for her work as a scholar.
Shalikashvili, a GW alumnus and former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, received a doctor of public service and praised graduates for their decision to attend college in D.C.
“It’s like having studied in Rome at the height of the Roman Empire,” he said.
As students began to leave their seats at the end of the ceremony, Trachtenberg said, “And you may now turn your tassels from right to left, as I hope happened to your politics in the last four years.”