Standing before an arena packed with graduates, their families and well-wishers, University of New Orleans alumnus Bivian “Sonny” Lee III shared that he once suffered from debilitating social anxiety that forced him to take a break from pursuing his bachelor’s degree in 2000.
As he looked around the Lakefront Arena on Friday, Lee, who served as the principal speaker at the University of New Orleans’ spring 2023 commencement ceremony, said the thought of speaking in front of such a large group of people would have been “absolutely unfathomable” during that time in his life.
“Anxiety doesn’t always go away,” Lee said. “Make no mistake, it has stayed with me all these years, but I choose to confront my challenges head- on, making myself uncomfortable in order to progress to the next phase and opportunity in my life as often as possible.”
Lee has dedicated his life to transforming the lives of fatherless boys. Since he founded Son of a Saint in 2011, the organization has grown to now serve over 200 mentees with an operating budget of more than $4 million. Lee earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing and management from the University of New Orleans.
“You can probably imagine how this moment is full circle for me, and one that serves as a reminder that anything is possible with hard work, perseverance, and a willingness to face our fears head-on,” Lee said.
The nearly 700 spring candidates who were eligible to participate in the ceremony represented 31 U.S. states and territories, and 12 countries.
The arena stands were filled with friends and relatives of the graduates, who waved posters and pictures, applauded and shouted out words of affirmation to express their love and pride.
For President John Nicklow, who has served in the University of New Orleans' top post since March 2016, it was a bittersweet moment as he presided over his final commencement at UNO. Nicklow has been named president of Florida Institute of Technology and will assume that position on July 1.
“This is a graduation of sorts for me, too,” Nicklow said. “I want to take this moment to say how grateful I am to the members of our university community, faculty, staff, students, alumni and friends, for your support. Serving as your President has been my honor.”
While waiting to cross the stage, some graduates marked the day with selfies, videos and reflecting on their time spent at UNO.
“I get what people mean now when they said to get out there and get that college experience,” said Carlos Mendoza, who earned a bachelor’s in computer science. “I would tell students to get out as much as you can, spend as much time as you can on campus.”
Charles Richardson was creating a video for his mother. He first enrolled at UNO in 2006 and persisted over the years to get a degree because of her support, Richardson said.
“She’s always sacrificed things for me and because of that I just wanted to tell her thank you and show her while she’s here the love I have for her,” Richardson said.
As she sat waiting for the ceremony to start, 84-year-old Nancy Sherman chuckled as she reflected on her journey to earning a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies.
“When I started at the university, I started in fun,” said Sherman, whose daughter earned a biology degree from UNO and encouraged her then 74-year-old mother to enroll. “I started out taking piano and French … well, 10 years later, here I am.”
Sherman, who joked that she was “always quitting” college, attributes earning her degree to supportive UNO faculty and staff, her niece and her daughter.
“Today means a lot of love because I had a lot of help,” Sherman said. “My daughter really pushed me, she would say, ‘Ma, you can do it!’ I had a lot of fun. I really recommend it. I think all seniors should go!”
Lee told the graduates that his time at UNO not only set him up to achieve, but that it also provided a platform for moments and relationships that became formative in his life. He encouraged graduates to nurture the relationships that they have made while attending UNO and to seek out others who hold goals similar to their own.
“The importance of relationships is unmatched,” Lee said. “As you move forward in your lives, remember that success is not a solo endeavor. It's about building bonds and relationships with others who share your vision and your values, and walking through life with those who can help you achieve your goals.”
Lee also urged graduates to hone their communications skills and be undeterred in pursuit of their dreams. He shared that his initial attempts to start his nonprofit Son of A Saint in 2011 were met with multiple rejections.
“In that first year, I asked probably 1,000 people for support, and less than 100 said yes. So many people said no. But I didn't give up,” Lee said. “And that's what I want to impress upon you today. Success requires perseverance, grit and a willingness to do the things that no one else is willing to do. It requires forming quality relationships, honing your communication skills and being persistent even in the face of adversity.
“These are the traits that will enable you to overcome the challenges that lie ahead and to achieve your dreams.”