After earning a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of New Orleans, Maurice Carlos Ruffin went on to earn a law degree and became a practicing attorney. However, he longed to be a writer, Ruffin said.
Stories were his passion, Ruffin said Friday at UNO’s Lakefront Arena where he delivered the keynote address during the fall commencement ceremony.
“I had one little problem; I didn’t know how to write,” Ruffin said. “This wasn’t a roadblock though. Why? Because any passion you have requires commitment.”
Finding a passion was No. 2 on Ruffin’s list of 10 rules for happiness that he shared with graduates. He described the list as a “starter kit” for happiness more than the secret to a happy life.
“Kind of like when you use that box of Zatarain’s to make gumbo or jambalaya,” Ruffin said.
Ruffin’s passion returned him to UNO for a second degree, a master’s in creative writing.
“I have published two books and have a third one coming out in February,” Ruffin said. “In other words, I’m living my dream because I went to this school.”
Ruffin, who has won numerous acclaim and awards for his literary work, including the 2023 Louisiana Writer Award and a New York Times Editor’s Choice, is a professor of creative writing at Louisiana State University.
He is the author of the forthcoming historical novel “The American Daughters,” which will be published in 2024 by One World Random House.
Those accomplishments did not come without disappointments, Ruffin said. That falls under Ruffin’s rule No. 6: Understand that mistakes, rejection and failure are all normal.
“One of my goals was to publish short stories in college literary magazines … I sent out a total of 326 pieces to magazines. I was rejected 323 times,” Ruffin said of the goal he had set back in 2004. “But guess what? I was published three times.”
Ruffin also urged graduates to find love, take calculated risks, set a concrete goal, build a support network, help others and to improvise, evolve and have fun.
“Be the kind of person who sees problems as an opportunity to innovate,” Ruffin said.
President Kathy Johnson, who presided over her first UNO commencement, applauded the graduates for their perseverance and personal growth.
“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,” Johnson said. “You have persevered through storms and a global pandemic, demonstrating grit, resilience and strength in the face of adversity.
“You’ve grown in so many ways through your determination to work hard and achieve your degree. And today is the day that we celebrate your success!”
The fall and summer 2023 graduating classes hailed from 25 U.S. states and territories and 11 countries.
Melissa Wickram and Unique Steward were among the students participating in Friday’s ceremony. Both said they know about pushing through difficulties.
Wickram earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and wants to pursue a counseling degree so that she can combine her love of art into helping others. She makes jewelry, like the colorful disco ball earrings that hung from her earlobes.
“I’m an older graduate, I’ve been at this for a while off and on,” Wickram said. “So, this is like closing a chapter.”
Wickram said she would like to incorporate her art passion into therapy.
“My mom passed away 10 years ago and so I studied grief and how it affects people,” said Wickram, whose mortar board was adorned with photos of her mother. “I’d like to study that some more and help people through that process as well.”
Meanwhile, Steward’s mortar board held a gleaming tiara. Growing up, she participated in pageants and her mother thought it a fitting crown for her college graduation, Steward said.
“There were so many things that blocked me and so many times where I didn’t even see the finish line,” said Steward, who earned a bachelor’s degree in business. “I always buckled down, prayed and talked to God whenever I got overwhelmed; and he carried me through.”
Mardel Groome’s granddaughter, Lynne Odenwald, earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. Odenwald was joining a family tradition of UNO alumni that began with her late grandfather’s graduation in 1965, Groome said.
Groome started at UNO, but left for the workforce while her husband, Dennis H. Groome III, completed his biology degree. Her husband used the stone from his class ring and created a charm for Groome.
On Friday, Groome held the charm as she watched her granddaughter graduate. She planned to give the charm to Odenwald to commemorate the occasion.
“This day means so much to me because it means a wonderful future for my granddaughter,” Groome said.