Drew University Commencement Kicks Off with Virtual Ceremony

“What is character?” asks Commencement Speaker the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III T’82

May 2021 – Drew University’s Commencement celebration days began this evening with a virtual celebration featuring the main Commencement address, the awarding of honorary degrees, student speakers, and symbolic conferral of degrees.

Drew students, faculty, staff, alums, trustees, and parents chimed in throughout the event in the online chat to offer congratulations and appreciation.

Interim President Thomas J. Schwarz began the ceremony recognizing the “usually nameless people” who became heroes amid COVID-19, from cashiers to delivery drivers to stockroom clerks who kept businesses running, to front-line healthcare workers and pharmaceutical companies who have helped fight the pandemic.

Schwarz also noted society’s racial and ethnic divides, as well as the rise of alternative facts and misinformation plaguing the country, before celebrating the graduating classes for their strength in facing these challenges.

He called for an adherence to one of the University mission statement’s core tenets: adding to the world’s good.

“Let us focus on adding to the word’s good by being a blessing to someone else, to honor those whose lives were cut short by the pandemic and who did not have as much chance as they should have to add to the world’s good. And let us finally recognize all those workers upon whose service we so depend and bring good into their lives as well,” said Schwarz.

“And let us renew our commitment to help add to the nation’s good by working to remove the vestiges of slavery, racism, and ethnic discrimination, and place the concept of alternative facts in the history books as a blip on the march of democracy.”

Schwarz then conferred honorary degrees upon three distinguished recipients, the Rev. Alfred T. Day IIIYamiche Alcindor, and the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III T’82, who each delivered remarks.

The Rev. Day, recent past General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History of the United Methodist Church, received an honorary doctor of divinity degree.

“Despite brokenness, life is stronger than death, hope overpowers despair, and moments of great challenge perceived as dead ends become portals for change and transformation,” he said in his message, reflecting on lessons learned from his career historical research.

Alcindor, White House Correspondent for PBS NewsHour and Contributor for NBC News and MSNBC, was received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.

“I’m heartened by the fact this your school’s mission is to offer a diverse community of learners a challenging and individualized education,” she said. “That is such an important goal during these years of the pandemic, of the racial reckoning, and of such deep, deep loss. We are all living through these times of challenge and controversy, and it is so important to hold our leaders accountable and to push for truth and justice and to not shy away from the hard conversations and the ugly and beautiful parts of our nation and world.”

The Rev. Butts, senior pastor of the renowned Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York and President Emeritus of SUNY College at Old Westbury, received an honorary doctor of ministry degree before delivering the 2021 Commencement address focused on inspiring good character in the face of the racial strife in the country.

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The Rev. Butts spoke from Abyssinian Baptist Church in NYC where he serves as pastor.

“What is character?” asked Butts.

Butts broke character down to be made of several things: avoiding luxury and materialism by spending money on educational institutions and helping those less fortunate; the ability and capacity to endure and overcome obstacles; having a concern for courtesy and respect as opposed to stereotyping or judging those different from us; and nurturing a love for the beauty in life.

“You want to measure your education? You want to know if you really got what I got from Drew? Then measure it according to those standards—is your character strong? Oh, you learned something. You can’t come through Drew and not learn something. You can’t come through Drew and be sitting in front of me listening to my speech and not have learned something. And you’ll be able to go out and earn a living. You’ll find a job. It may not be the job you want, but maybe it’s the job you need. But will you bring the character, hopefully that came from an education at Drew, into that job? … Character. I hope that Drew has drilled that into you.”

In closing, Butts referenced his own impactful Commencement ceremony, and added words of hope and advice.

“If you will take education, and if you will take faith, and go into this world wherever you may find yourself, and give that back…we’ve come a long way, and we’ve got so much further to go.

“Drew graduates of 2021,” he closed, “let your light shine and you will discover you will make tremendous contributions not only to this world but to the cosmos, that universal cosmos, that sees all of us as true creatures of the one God.”

Butts gave way to student speakers from each of Drew’s three schools—Meghan Fonseca C’21 of the College of Liberal Arts, Michael Fletcher G’21 from the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies, and Younghak Lee T’21 of the Theological School—who addressed their classmates.

You want to measure your education? You want to know if you really got what I got from Drew? Then measure it according to those standards—is your character strong? The Rev. Butts

“We have had the privilege to form our own ideas and have them challenged everyday—sometimes more than once—by another perspective,” reflected Fonseca of the diverse group of voices and experiences, strengths and vulnerabilities, that populate and flourish in The Forest.

Fletcher spoke of the virtue of gratitude, saying, “The University has provided us with an education and we, the fortunate beneficiaries, have gratefully received this treasure.”

Lee began with 30 seconds of silence—earphones in and a blindfold on.

“Let us not forget to keep our eyes open, keep our ears open, look around and listen carefully. Whom do you see? What cries do you hear? Love them as your neighbors and speak out for them. They’re waiting to hear you,” he said in a call for using one’s voice to change the world.

Following the student speakers, President Schwarz announced the 2021 teachers of the year recipients—Mark A. Miller, Associate Professor of Church Music, Director of Craig Chapel, and Composer-in-Residence (Scholar/Teacher of the Year for the Theological School); Steven Firestone, Director of the Master of Science in Finance program and Assistant Teaching Professor of Finance (Thomas H. Kean Scholar/Mentor of the Year in the Caspersen School); and Tammy Windfelder, Associate Professor of Biology (President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching in the CLA). More on the inspiring winners can be found here.

Provost Jessica Lakin, serving as chief marshal of the ceremony, introduced Ryan Hinrichs, Dean of the CLA and Caspersen School, and Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre, Interim Dean of the Theological School, who officially presented the candidates for graduation in their respective schools. President Schwarz symbolically conferred the graduates’ degrees before the ceremony ended with a scroll of the graduating students’ names, interspersed with shoutouts and final words of wisdom from faculty and staff.

The full ceremony can be viewed here.

The in-person portion of Commencement will be held outdoors in Ranger Stadium Friday, May 14, and Saturday, May 15, and will be split up into six separate ceremonies, live-streamed for those unable to attend. The ceremonies will honor this year’s Class of 2021 across all three schools, as well as last year’s Class of 2020, who were not able to gather in person for last year’s ceremonies due to the pandemic.

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