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University of New Orleans Celebrates Fall Commencement 2013
Fifty-five years after the University of New Orleans was the first state-supported university in the American South to open its doors as a fully integrated institution, members of the Class of 1958 sat in front-row seats on Friday to celebrate commencement at the Lakefront Arena.
Now in their 70s, the half-dozen class members present and their classmates were honored by the University as "the 55," or the University's first African-American students. The "55" helped to ensure in 1958 that the University is the only state-supported university in the South to open as a fully integrated college institution at it inception, said University President Peter J. Fos to great applause.
"Their time at UNO was far, far from ideal and in fact I commend them for their commitment to continuing to study here," the president said. "However, their legacy is that today the University of New Orleans is the most tolerant campus in the state and remember, was founded on two solid pillars: academic excellence and access to all. And today I am proud to say that we are the most diverse campus in the state of Louisiana," the president said to applause. "The challenges that they faced and that they stood up to have paid off positive long-term dividends."
At that time, the president said,classrooms were integrated, but "the 55" used separate dining and restroom facilities and endured prejudice from the majority of their white classmates. Sitting in front-row seats representing "the 55" at commencement were: Louise Williams Arnolie, Joseph Narcisse, Harold Fontinette, Janice Coleman Sawyer, Priscilla Montoya, Priscilla Robinson and Priscilla Jahnkes. President Fos recognized them each by name, then publicly honored the memory of Alfred P. Tureaud, the New Orleans lawyer civil rights activist who led the battle to desegregate the University of New Orleans, fully ensuring access to all.
Earlier in the day, the president honored Louise Williams Arnolie, the first African-American student to graduate from the University of New Orleans and a civil rights activist who once led a battle to desegregate the privately owned school cafeteria, by naming The Deck in the University Center in her honor.
"Louise Arnolie's dignity and perseverance served as an example to all students and her courage continues to inspire future generations," Fos said. "Those brave first 55 students laid the groundwork for today's University of New Orleans, a diverse and inclusive community of higher learning."
Xavier University of Louisiana President Norman Francis, who served as commencement speaker, congratulated UNO for honoring "the 55" and remembering with dignity a painful past.
"I am pleased to say that: Too often institutions forget to acknowledge and honor those who were both pioneers and trailblazers for their presence in historical institutional events, so the University of New Orleans today has gracefully fulfilled this obligation of gratitude and for that I commend all of you for that gratitude and respect," said President Francis, who honored the memory of Tureaud; Thurgood Marshall, who was not then a U.S. Supreme Court Justice and former New Orleans Mayor Ernest V. "Dutch" Morial, without whom the University would not have opened in 1958 as a fully integrated institution.
"But for their work and their hard work, we are here, aging each year," President Francis said, calling on faculty to continue "the resilience of the institution through long decades of pervasive challenges."
President Francis also had words for the graduates: "...For those of you who do not remember the past, you are bound to repeat its failures, so today I want to talk about today, I mean: today and the realities of today.
"When you graduates were working hard to secure your degrees, virtually nations the world over were mired in confrontations, political disasters, the denial of human rights to their own people and they were giving serious threats of nuclear catastrophes elsewhere in the world. And the extraordinary electronic creations brought these world experiences into our living rooms. We saw them when they were happening and we then realized that we are all global citizens and we are all impacted by a fence around the world. Directly and indirectly, thousands of miles away, we get impacted by what's happening in the world."
He called on the graduates to fight for parity for at-risk populations, pointing out how many of us are indeed at-risk. The U.S. is falling behind on the global scale in terms of graduation, education, technology, health services, economic levels, he said. Percentage wise, the gap between haves- and have-nots is widening on many fronts and that is not a happy thought, he said.
"If we as citizens of this democratic nation do not address or narrow these disparities, each and every one of us is at risk," President Francis said. "This is especially true in educational attainment...'Any nation that believes it can be uneducated and free is wishing for something that never was and will never be.'"
Graduation is a time for celebration, he said. So why was he talking about failures and disappointing realities?
"Well, put simply, it is to remind the young and the not-so-young that our best hopes for achieving a more just and humane society is sitting ready to receive their degrees. They are our future. They have shown their willingness to sacrifice to achieve a university degree. They are being prepared or have been prepared to lead now and they are our future peacemakers and teachers and yes, they must indeed celebrate today," he said.
"However, they are the chosen ones and their obligations to earn a living as they wish to do, and share their talents for the common good and general welfare, is nonnegotiable. They have risen to a level where the return of investments that have been made for them makes their obligation to share with others nonnegotiable," President Francis said.
"Their names are going to be called at this commencement in a few minutes but their names have already been called to service to their country," President Francis said. "And first and foremost, they must be willing to bring a greater degree of togetherness in a nation that is showing past examples of 'Divide and Conquer,' as well as the propensity to blame or ignore victims of benign neglect.'"
He called on the graduates to exploit their talents and continue their educations. He said they were the future peacemakers and teachers.
"Do not be afraid, graduates, to lead. You are the best examples to promote quality education from the cradle to the grave," he said. "And you may have the best chance in that future, to break that roadway that's out there right now from the school house to jail."
Francis asked the audience: If these graduates don't act, who will? Leadership is the return on the investments on them. He called on the graduates to help build a more just and humane society.
President Francis is the longest tenured college president in the nation, having led Xavier since 1968. He enjoys a prestigious national reputation and has served in an advisory role to eight U.S. presidents, as well as served on 54 national commissions. In 2006, he received the nation's highest civilian award, The Presidential Medal of Freedom. Above all, Francis is recognized for his community service and his unwavering commitment to educational and social equality.
As president of the nation's only historically black and Catholic university, Francis has helped Xavier grow both in size and dimension, said University of New Orleans President Peter J. Fos, who cited Francis as a mentor. Francis has helped Xavier University double its enrollment, broadened its curriculum, expanded its campus and strengthened its financial base, President Fos said. Moreover, he has served as an administrator at Xavier for more than 50 years.
The commencement ceremony honored both fall and summer graduates, as there is no summer commencement ceremony. Today, 232 summer graduates and 858 fall graduates received their diplomas. They hailed from 42 states and Washington D.C. and 53 countries, a true example of the diversity today celebrated at the University, President Fos said. Vice President of Academic Affairs and Provost James Payne conferred degrees.
President Fos welcomed graduates to the end of a long race, saying they now joined the winner's circle.
"Today's program marks the end of long years of academic training and the beginning of a transition to a different chapter in your lives," the president said. "When you first arrived at this University, you were determined and committed to run this race, sometimes at tremendous sacrifice and cost to you and your family, but you prevailed. Even though you may have taken longer to complete this race than you expected, you are still in the winners' circle. Congratulations.
President Fos also congratulated parents and guardians for their many years of hard work, sacrifice and self-denial so that their children could receive the best education possible.
He congratulated faculty and staff for their four years of training and mentoring these talented students through hard work and dedication.
"We all hope that we have been able to inspire in their hearts and minds, the members of this graduating class, a genuine love of lifelong learning," President Fos said. "Thank you for your commitment to your students and to the University of New Orleans."
President Fos presided over the graduation ceremony and honored urban developer and civic leader Pres Kabacoff with an honorary doctorate from the College of Liberal Arts. Kabacoff, a key leader in the planning and revitalization of New Orleans, is the co-founder, co-chairman and chief executive officer of HRI Properties, a real estate development company known for creating diverse, vibrant and sustainable communities.
"I am humbled by this honor but it's probably the second most important thing I've done at the University of New Orleans," said Kabacoff. "I'm a lawyer. I got in the real estate business but I really didn't understand anything about real estate financing...So I took a class. We are probably now the largest real estate company in the South that I know of so I really have a lot to recognize the University of New Orleans for. Thank you."
The Right Reverend Morris K. Thompson, Jr., bishop of Louisiana, delivered the invocation and the benediction. Manolito Damien Smith, a Master's student in the UNO Department of Music, performed the national anthem and the UNO alma mater.
UNO graduates second lined out of the arena, diplomas in hand, to the jazz rebirth sounds of the Pocket Aces brass band, a traditional New Orleans brass band made up of mostly UNO students.