The University of New Orleans honored its graduates’ accomplishments Saturday during a commencement ceremony that challenged them to move ahead with a mindset of service, integrity and excellence.
Commencement speaker U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Chad Franks, a 1990 graduate of the University of New Orleans, drew on his 27-year military career as he sought to encourage graduates to approach their lives and careers with zeal, commitment and hard work. After being presented with an honorary doctorate of humane letters, Franks described how he has adopted the U.S. Air Force’s three core values of service, integrity and excellence as his own. He encouraged those getting their degrees to identify their own values and to integrate them into the daily fabric of their lives.
“I have spent my entire adult life in the U.S. Air Force since the day I graduated from UNO,” said Franks, who serves as vice commander of the 14th Air Force, Air Force Space Command at Vandenburg Air Force Base in California. He recounted the many sacrifices he and his family have made for his service including moving 15 times in 27 years, missing his son’s birthdays, ballgames, first dates and homecoming and losing friends in training accidents and in combat. “These are typical experiences for members of our U.S. armed forces,” he said. “I don’t tell you this to garner your sympathy or ask for your appreciation. It’s just the life that we choose as military members. But, to the graduates of 2017, I tell you this because you owe me.”
“You owe it to us to have passion,” he said, “A passion for this country. A passion that drives you to excel in whatever profession you decide is your life’s work. A passion to ensure you take care of those around you. A passion that inspires you to believe the unbelievable.”
Franks went on to enumerate other responsibilities he said graduates have as a result of living in a country whose protections are made possible by the service of others: To participate. To get up when you fail and to avoid blaming others. To work hard. To think for yourselves. To seek knowledge throughout life. And to treat everyone with dignity and respect.
“You owe it to us to enjoy the freedoms that so many of us have fought and died for,” Franks said. “In doing so, you honor them and me. This is what you owe me and I am going to hold you all accountable. But I know you will deliver. I like what I see in the graduates of 2017. Like the young airmen that I have the privilege to lead every day, I see greatness in this generation of young Americans and your potential is boundless.”
Graduates and onlookers responded with applause and appreciation. Graduates of the class of 2017 hailed from 42 states and territories and 53 countries. They included researchers, musicians, educators, full-time employees, athletes, parents, grandparents and parents-to-be.
There were students who always knew what they wanted to become and others for whom even considering college once seemed a far-off dream.
“I honestly never thought I would get to this point,” said Sterling Stevens, 26, whose ambition of going to college after high school was slowed as he sought to support his family, holding odd jobs from the age of 16. For the last six years, he has worked as a full-time paramedic while working toward his bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies. The major, he said, helped him personalize his course load to include biology, chemistry, public health and psychology, preparing him for acceptance to medical school. He will matriculate to the LSU School of Medicine in New Orleans in the fall.
“I feel really good,” he said.
Meagan Jolicoeur, 22, walked across the stage to receive a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Six months earlier, she learned she was pregnant. Jolicoeur said her professors were incredibly supportive as she sought to complete her degree, despite some pregnancy-related sickness. As she stepped on the stage, her mortarboard was decorated with a Biblically-inspired message she felt made it suitable to hang in baby Brayleigh’s nursery: “She is clothed with strength and dignity.”
“I wanted to stay the course,” Jolicouer said.
Veronica Lynn Rodriguez-Pelayo wore a light blue hood as she crossed the stage to receive a master’s of art in teaching degree. A mother of three, Rodriguez-Pelayo sought to change careers from paralegal to educator after her son, Nicolas, now 11, was diagnosed with autism. She said she hopes now to pursue a doctorate and to write curricula designed for students with special needs, but especially autism. Nicolas was in the audience along with his father and two brothers, ages four and 12, as his mother’s name was called.
“I’m so happy,” Rodriguez-Pelayo said.
University of New Orleans President John Nicklow congratulated the graduates and asked parents, families and loved ones to stand to be recognized. He asked graduates to think about how they’d changed over the time they’d been enrolled at the University.
“Today’s program marks the end of long years of rigorous academic training and the beginning of a transition to a different chapter of your lives,” Nicklow said. “You’ve grown in so many ways through your determination to work hard and achieve your degree. Hopefully you now understand what I mean when I say education is transformational. Yes, you’ve faced many obstacles along the way, but with the help of your family, your friends and supporters, you’ve succeeded and are prepared for whatever may come next. You’ve accepted the challenge and the future is truly yours.”
At the end of the ceremony, graduates were led out of UNO Lakefront Arena to the tunes of a brass band. They smiled and some danced as they waived white handkerchiefs in the air. Across the handkerchiefs were navy block letters that spelled out their newest title at UNO: “Alumni.”