The University of New Orleans conferred degrees on roughly 900 graduates Friday in a ceremony both festive and solemn, signifying both achievement and hope for what lies ahead.
“Today’s program marks the end of long years of rigorous academic training and the beginning of a transition to a different chapter in your lives,” UNO President John Nicklow told those gathered on the floor of the UNO Lakefront Arena.
Those receiving diplomas included 12 doctoral students and 311 master’s degree candidates. They hailed from 43 states and territories and 45 countries. And 115 of them graduated with honors.
Their personal stories were as varied as were the places from which they came. But as the graduates adjusted their caps and zipped up their gowns in preparation to walk across the stage, many spoke with pride and excitement about what led them to this day.
“It altered the whole course of my life,” said Andrew Smith, who came to UNO five years ago after graduating from Haynes Academy for Advanced Studies in Harvey, La., following what he described as a lackluster high school career.
At UNO, Smith became immersed in the study of anthropology and sociology and, he said, found himself challenged by professors who motivated him to dive deeply into social issues that he hopes to continue exploring in graduate school. On Friday, he graduated Cum Laude with a 3.6 GPA.
“I have a purpose in life,” he said.
Across the room, Kristen Montz, 24, of Gretna, weaved her way through the crowd, her bejeweled mortar board trimmed with lights that changed from blue to green to red. Six years earlier, the De La Salle High School graduate enrolled at UNO to pursue electrical engineering. Three years in, she became a mother. She gave birth in September of that year and never took a break in school, thanks to help from family and great professors. “It was hard,” she said, “but I loved it.”
She knew when she walked, she wanted to light up. She wanted her daughter, now 3, to be able to see her in the crowd.
Academy Award-winning film producer Jon Landau delivered the commencement address, urging graduates to dream big, work hard, live with integrity and take time to appreciate the journey toward success. Landau’s film production credits include “Titanic” and “Avatar,” two of the highest grossing films in history.
Often times, Landau said, achieving your dreams means working with others. “You can’t build a path alone,” he said. “And there are times when a dream will seem impossible. But when you start working with a group of people on a shared common vision, the impossible turns to improbable. And as you continue down the path, working together, improbably turns to inevitable.”
Other graduation highlights included:
- Wayne Schexnayder received a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies—25 years after getting his associate degree from Delgado Community College.
- Jennifer Grace received a Ph.D. in educational administration. Her dissertation on rerouting the school to prison pipeline among African-American males was honored as dissertation of the year by the American Association of Blacks in Higher Education.
- Janice Binder James Van Hoven, who has been taking classes at UNO every year for the past 21 years, graduated Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor of science degree in business administration.
- Organist William Memmott, 80, received a master’s degree in music composition.
- Cynthia Spencer of Austin, Texas, attended as a special guest in memory of her daughter, Savannah Frances Spencer. Savannah died in a car accident in May of 2013 after finishing her final exams at UNO and driving back home to Bossier City, La. “Today would have been Savannah’s graduation,” Nicklow told those gathered. “According to Cynthia, Savannah loved learning, giving and making people laugh and she simply loved life.”
Harshan Ramakrishna, 22, who came to UNO from Sri Lanka, said that he knew very little about UNO when he first moved here.
Four years later, a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering in hand, he said he’s sure he made the right decision. “I got a quality education and got to meet people from all over the world and made great friends,” he said.
Unable to make the trip to celebrate with him, Ramakrishna’s family planned on watching the live-stream of the graduation on the web from Sri Lanka.
If they stayed tuned until the end, perhaps they saw UNO’s traditional graduation ending: a second-line dance out of the arena.