More than 6,000 students can now call themselves GW graduates after Sunday’s blue-sky Commencement on the Ellipse.
After planning for more than a year, the University hosted about 23,000 students, family, faculty and administrators in front of the White House. Of the 6,700 graduates eligible to attend the ceremony, officials said 5,000 actually came to Sunday’s festivities.
“It was terrific,” said University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, who sported a blue GW cap during Commencement, after the two hour-long ceremony. “We were blessed with good weather, the speakers were humorous and professional and the students had a good time.”
Four honored guests spoke at the ceremony, including keynote speaker and CBS “60 Minutes” correspondent Andy Rooney, whose granddaughter Alexis Perkins received her bachelor’s degree Sunday. He mixed grandfatherly advice with pessimism and witty satire.
“How could I be anything but happy to be here,” Rooney said. “I get to talk to young people, and they don’t get to talk back.”
The experienced reporter and columnist also gave advice to graduates during their final moments as students, saying, “If you’re smart, you should be nervous about going into the world.”
“If you’re not nervous, you’re not smart,” he added.
Trachtenberg also honored Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Mildred Dresselhaus, Miami Herald publisher Alberto Ibarguen and former top Army doctor Phillip Russell with honorary degrees.
“As we go forward into the 21st century, the world will need your leadership to face the problems of an increasingly globalized society and all the perils out there,” said Russell, who encouraged graduates to pursue careers in public service.
After Commencement, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) addressed about 400 graduates from GW’s Law School at the Smith Center, encouraging future lawyers to abide by strict legal standards.
“My advice to you graduates is that each use your education to stand for the rule of law, not of man. My advice is that you play the game hard, but play by the rules,” Reid said. “And if the game goes against you, work harder, train harder and play again.”
Reid graduated from the Law School in 1964 and had a discouraging experience with administrators that led him to hold a “grudge” toward GW.
While attending law school, Reid worked full-time as a U.S. Capitol Police officer to support his pregnant wife and daughter. After seeking advice on how to balance his busy schedule, a dean told him to quit law school.
The senator did not follow that advice, but also did not accept a number of invitations since his graduation to address GW students.
“I’ve been asked to speak in the past,” Reid said during an interview with The Hatchet before his speech. “I just felt like now it was the right time.”
Reid, who did not attend his GW Commencement, said Sunday was the first time he set foot on campus in 40 years.
“I was so anxious to get out of here,” he said, referring to his completion of classes at the University.
The Law School’s ceremony went off without any problems, but the overall Commencement ceremony faced a shortage of seats that became apparent as the festivities got underway. More than 100 lined up to get chairs, which they set up in non-designated seating areas. University Police officers displaced spectators who set up in high-traffic areas.
“I’ve worked 25 commencements, and this is the most disorganized one I’ve ever been to,” said Vincent DeCerchio, director of public safety at Bucknell University whose daughter graduated from the Elliott School of International Affairs. “No one is collecting tickets, people can’t find a place to sit and half of the seats are covered in mud.”
Tracy Schario, GW’s director of media relations, said the shortage was due to construction on the Ellipse and previous attendance numbers, which ranged from 16,000 to 18,000 people. She added this was one of the largest attended commencement ceremonies in the 14-year history of the event being held on the Ellipse.
“What we’ve done over the past couple of years is set up 20,000 chairs,” said Schario, who attributed the high attendance to the sunny weather. “Based on prior estimates, 20,000 was a sufficient number.”
Schario said that once Trachtenberg announced that additional seating was open near graduates and most people found a seat, things went “extremely smoothly.”
EMeRG set up a tent behind the Commencement stage and treated 25 patients for symptoms of dehydration and nausea. Officials said if it had been any warmer they would have expected more serous problems.
“It was pretty much the perfect weather for a ceremony like this,” said Dr. Reed Smith of the GW Hospital, who was assisting EMeRG.