Between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument, GW held its Commencement ceremony on a sun-filled National Mall for the first time before a crowd of about 25,000.
“I actually liked it better than the Ellipse,” University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said, comparing this year’s ceremony location on the Mall to the lawn in front of the White House where Commencement has traditionally been held. This year marked the first that Commencement took place on the Mall and only the second year since 1993 that the ceremony was not on the Ellipse.
“It was terrific, just terrific,” Trachtenberg said after the ceremony.
In the fall, the National Park Service told GW that the Ellipse would not be available due to construction. The University moved the ceremony to the National Mall between 4th and 7th streets.
George H.W. Bush and former First Lady Barbara Bush gave a tandem keynote speech where they asked graduates to remember education and service to others as pillars in a post-collegiate life.
“Be bold. If you have an idea, act on it,” the 41st president told the nearly 4,500 graduates in attendance from GW’s nine schools. “Be bold in the way you think and in the way you care for others.”
The former First Lady emphasized the importance of passing literacy on to future generations.
“Learning how to read and write is crucial for keeping people off the streets and out of jails,” she added.
“Promise to find your passion,” she said. “Go out and make us proud.”
In his charge to the graduates, Trachtenberg, who announced in April that he will be stepping down as University president in July 2007, said he has enjoyed the compliments and criticisms from students, parents and the media throughout his 18 years at GW.
“For everyone who has been a thorn in my side,” he said. “I cherish your opinion.”
He referred to a column by former Hatchet senior editor Will Dempster that said Trachtenberg has a reputation for having a preoccupation with money.
“I have to admit I’ve been having a love affair for the last 30 years,” he said. “It is not one that compromised by love for my wife or my fidelity.”
“It is a love for the students whose educations have been entrusted to me,” he said.
“I look for money to give the University the equivalent of flowers and candy,” Trachtenberg said.
He added that money allows things like the construction of new buildings and financial aid allowances.
Vice President for Communications Michael Freedman said he was pleased with the planning and the ceremony, which he said drew one of the largest crowds on record.
“Overall this was pretty spectacular,” he said. “Everything came off without a hitch.”
With construction most likely continuing on the Ellipse next spring, Freedman said the Mall is a “serious contender” for next year’s Commencement ceremony.
“It was virtually flawless,” said University Marshall Jill Kasle. “I don’t have a preference of location; either way I am addressing about 20,000 people.”
Kasle said the National Mall site is easier for setting up and taking down the stage. She added that the University will be meeting in the next month to review this year’s event and to begin planning for next year.
For this year’s Commencement, Virginia Tallent wanted to make sure she had the best view possible when her son, Robert, graduated with his doctorate in engineering. She arrived at the National Mall at 7 a.m. for the ceremony, which began at about 10:30 a.m.
Tallent sat in the first row with a host of family and friends. “It’s been so nice,” she said. “The good Lord smiled on us.”
Not everyone got a spot in the front row. Throughout the two-hour ceremony, many people moved their folding chairs from the back to the more shaded areas lining the walkways on the side of the main lawn.
“Some people are having a hard time seeing all the way in the back, but nice weather can make up for anything,” said Adam Meixner, a 2004 graduate of GW’s School of Business who was in the crowd to see his brother graduate.
Despite the nice weather, some attendees said they would have preferred the Ellipse.
“The Ellipse is nice. It’s such a picturesque setting with the White House and the Washington Monument,” said 1975 alumnus Alan Meixner. “This is nice, but the White House is great.”
Also speaking at the ceremony were Sumner Redstone, the CEO of media conglomerate Viacom and graduating senior Aaron Huertas, who was this year’s student speaker.
“Education and family should be the two priorities of any career,” Redstone told graduates and guests. “There is nothing more important than family.”
He said, “Thinking and education holds the power to a better world.”