A President's Reflections

Commencement 2019: Hope, Heroes, and Love

Posted on May 19, 2019

Commencement infographic
Click to expand infographic.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our Commencement exercises a week ago. It was a special couple of days, record setting days really. We had this year some 21,000 graduates, many of them coming to Manchester to march and receive their diploma, in four ceremonies over two days. Yes, my hand was sore after all that handshaking, but I wouldn’t trade the experience (more fist bumping I might be tempted to encourage). Anyone who was there will attest to the sense of celebration and that particular SNHU mix of ceremony with warmth and affection. Our Commencement speakers all commented on it – the feeling in the arena, the joy and pride, all the while being well managed and tight (we had one small stumble with name reading, but quickly got back on pace). Our team does an amazing job.

I find myself in the aftermath thinking more about the behind the scenes stories, the ones most people do not get to see. The audience sees only a hint of the more than 700 staff that show up to make everything work.

SNHU staff

Their delight in the students is infectious and they bring order to chaos, even stepping in to do a touch of make-up if necessary.

SNHU staff doing student Makeup

Students often rush in late, almost panicked, and our staff calmly takes care of everything, with a smile and reassurance, and everyone ends up where they need to be. It really does take a village to make something this big, this complex, work so well. We talk a lot about mission, but mission is lived out in the work and SNHU staff are the most mission driven, student-focused people I know.

Cory Booker and SNHU Staff

Everyone gets to see our Commencement speakers on stage, but behind stage it’s fun to see them meet people, take selfies, and connect as regular people. Here’s Senator Cory Booker taking photos with some of our faculty.

Whether or not one cares for his politics, he seemed to be utterly authentic in the joy he took in meeting people, the hugs he gave graduates, and the warmth he showed everyone. He is the first Commencement Speaker to ask if he could join me to shake hands and he did, the whole time, and one could tell that rather than deplete him, the interactions charge his battery. 

President LeBlanc and Carolyn Booker

I loved that he brought his mom, Carolyn, and I got to meet her in the green room.

She is old enough to have be heartened by the enormous changes in America and the impact of the Civil rights movement, to be dismayed by how far we still have to go in terms of race in America, and to have unbounded pride that her son is a U.S. Senator and candidate for the presidency. She was lovely and gracious and, on Mother’s Day, a reminder that no matter how famous, liked or disliked, everyone was someone’s baby and in that mysterious mix of nature and nurture, mothers bring both.

Commencement audiences love seeing the service dogs that often assist our graduates. In the minutes before the ceremony, Harley was dressed, ready, and resting up. 

Service dog at commencement

I often think dogs were put on this earth to remind us humans to up our game. 

The real stars of Commencement are the students and while everyone gets to see them, only a handful of people in the room know their stories.  They are inspirational stories.  Here are just a few of them:

Sarah Schoenback

Sarah Schoenback, a campus student who excelled in school, despite losing three years of memory. She suffered a traumatic brain injury while playing varsity soccer in high school. The injury caused her to lose three years of memory and she had to re-learn how to walk and talk. Despite losing years of educational experience, Sarah overcame her obstacles and caught up in school. She graduated from high school with a 3.8 GPA and also excelled at SNHU as a double major — elementary education and special education.

Hanna Sheppard

Hanna Sheppard, a formerly paralyzed student, defied the odds and walked across the stage to receive her master’s degree. She was thirteen when she dove into her backyard swimming pool and broke her neck, paralyzing herself instantly. She was told she’d never walk again. After months of uncertainty and acute physical therapy, she was able to stand on her own. She later regained her ability to walk independently, with a slight limp on her right side. Hanna thought she’d never be able to walk again, but she persisted. She walked proudly across the stage to receive her diploma.

Chynna-Wall

Chynna Wall, the 18-year-old daughter of SNHU student, Angelique, traveled more than 1,100 miles to walk at graduation on behalf of her mom who is battling breast cancer. She walked across the stage with a cap that said “Walkin’ for Mom,” and says “every day should be treated like Mother’s Day.”

Ricardo-Scarello-and-Puck

Ricardo Scarello, a legally blind student, traveled to Manchester with his service dog, Puck to receive his master’s degree in IT. He currently works as a senior software developer and hopes to continue advancing his career. Ricardo worked extensively with our online accessibility team throughout his time at SNHU and even offered to help make SNHU programs more accessible for visually impaired students. Demita Furnner, SNHU’s director of online accessibility, said Ricardo’s extra work with SNHU made the university better equipped to serve visually impaired students in the future. Ricardo said SNHU gave him the ability to learn on an equal playing field.

Christen Ganley

Christen Ganley, a 42-year-old SNHU student, earned her master’s degree in higher education administration after surviving a brain tumor. She earned multiple degrees (one from SNHU) while battling cancer, and pursued a career in radiation therapy – the treatment that saved her life. She is the Clinical Coordinator for the Radiation Therapy Program at Baptist Health Science College. Christen is the first faculty member at her workplace to teach online-only courses. She says her experience studying online with SNHU allowed her to become a better instructor.

Carissa gurung

Carissa Gurung, a Bhutanese refugee who resettled in the U.S. in 2010, walked across the stage with her two young boys (also dressed in cap and gown!) watching from the crowd. She’s pursuing a career in law enforcement with her justice studies degree from SNHU. Her dream is to become a Manchester, NH police officer and make a positive impact on her community.

Emily Mott

Emily Myott is an extraordinary mom of five who completed her bachelor’s degree while also homeschooling her children. Her kids were all under the age of nine when she started her program six years ago.

With every hand I shake and diploma I hand out, I know there is a story and so often I just want to stop the ceremony and ask, “What’s your story?” One man, about my age, whispered to me that he was walking for his wife, who had completed her degree with us and passed away before she could march.  Her family was sitting behind Cory Booker’s team and they later shared with me that they heard the story and both family members and staffers cried together.

Behind the scenes, I at least get to hear some of these stories and feel so inspired and proud to be with our students.

President LeBlanc and DeElva Hall

DeElva Harrell made her way to Manchester, in the middle of her chemotherapy for breast cancer, and she wasn’t sure she’d be well enough to join us that day.  She did indeed join us, she stood up to get her degree, and I wore with pride the breast cancer ribbon and flower she gave me. She later told me it was one of the best days of her life. It was for us too.

After the Commencement ceremonies were over, Pat and I hosted an evening at our home for some of the graduates who had come far without family to celebrate their accomplishment. Students from Rwanda and from the Rio Grande Valley. Here is the latter group.

Group of students with President LeBlanc

On the right is Birmingham Mayor, Randall Woodfin, our fourth speaker of the weekend (and maybe the coolest speaker we’ve ever had). I was reminded of the diversity of our community, the multitude of dreams embodied in the arena that weekend, and what a privilege it is to do this work. It does not feel like work really. It feels like a calling.

In that spirit, I offer up this podcast from David Brooks (not someone with whom I’ve often agreed). Brooks speaks to the power of community, the fulfillment that comes with connectedness. I know a Commencement is in many ways a celebration of individual achievement, but at an SNHU commencement there really is such a strong sense of community, of family, of camaraderie and mutual delight. I know it sounds a bit corny, but it feels like a room abounding in love. Who wouldn’t want to be in such a place?

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