The University of New Orleans conferred degrees on approximately 900 people Friday, Dec. 16, in a ceremony that recognized the significant achievement, work and determination of its graduates. President John Nicklow, presiding over his second commencement at the UNO Lakefront Arena, congratulated students on the years of work and transformational journeys that led them to this culminating event.
“Today’s program marks the end of long years of rigorous academic training and the beginning of a transition to a very different chapter in your lives,” Nicklow said. “I want you to think just for a moment about how different you are today than when you arrived at the University of New Orleans. You’ve grown in so many different ways in your determination to work hard and achieve your degree. Now you understand what I mean when I say education is transformational.”
Those who walked the stage hailed from 41 states and 57 countries. They came from all manner of cultural and economic backgrounds, all ages and life experiences.
Some could draw a straight line from their high school graduation to today. Others, Nicklow pointed out, took more circuitous life paths, but found their way back at higher education’s promising doorstep. Take Beverly Ann Ritter, 72, who began her college career 39 years ago. On Friday, Ritter stood to be recognized by Nicklow. She graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in romance languages, having taken all but 15 of her credits at UNO.
Karen J. Campbell beamed when Nicklow called out her name as well. Campbell started her undergraduate career at Colorado State University in 1967 and came back to school to finish this year, finishing with a 4.0 GPA and receiving a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies.
“Yes, you’ve faced obstacles along the way,” Nicklow told the graduates. “But with the help of family and friends and supporters, you have succeeded and you are prepared for whatever comes next. Because, in fact, next is now.”
It was a truth that seemed particularly palpable for Jorge Velazquez, 32, who donned the pink hood emblematic of advanced studies in music. Velazquez came to UNO as an undergraduate from east Los Angeles in 2010 after working odd jobs and enrolling in community college courses back home. Now he was receiving his master’s degree in instrumental conducting. “As a kid I never even thought I’d go to college,” he said. On Friday, he choked up as he spoke of his dream of one day opening a community center in his hometown, one that will provide free music instruction to those who can’t afford it: “I’m one step closer to making that happen.”
Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, an actor and former musician who currently stars as federal agent Patton Plame in “NCIS: New Orleans,” gave a funny and stirring commencement address in which he relayed the worthwhile effort it takes to pursue excellence in the face of incredible odds. Mitchell was paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident in 2001, but within months returned to his acting career to great acclaim. In 2010, he was awarded the NAACP Image Award and has become a vocal advocate for people with disabilities.
Mitchell encouraged the graduates to keep their options open, to think globally about their opportunities, to take advantage of every day they have breath, to own their dreams and to be prepared to find themselves alone at times on the way to achieving them.
“Preparation and opportunity equals success,” Mitchell said. “You can always make money. But you can’t buy time. Please don’t waste your time. Please use every moment of your life. Because tomorrow could be a whole different thing. I tell people all the time, if I’d have seen this accident coming, I would have went the other way … One thing about adversity, if you lay down you stay down.”
Twenty people received their doctorates during the ceremony, undergoing the traditional on-stage hooding by their professors. And nearly 300 were awarded master’s degrees, including Derreck Deason and Timothy Griffin, the very first graduates of UNO’s new Master of Science of Transportation program.
The ceremony ended with UNO’s traditional second-line out of the UNO Lakefront Arena, where graduates were greeted by the family, friends and others who supported them as they sought to further their education.
“I’ve been ready for this for a long time,” said Kacie Braud, 22, of Marrero. Braud received her bachelor degree in hotel, restaurant and tourism administration through UNO’s College of Business Administration. She said she’s been working full-time and going to school full-time for years and is looking forward to directing all of her professional energy toward one job, the position she holds in event operations at the New Orleans Marriott.
Braud said she leaves UNO without any regrets about the program. “I really think the faculty want you to succeed,” she said. “Everything you can dream of, they’re there for you to help you make it a reality.”