Graduates gather at Dix Stadium for commencement, gain inspiration from speakers

Commencement speaker and Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer encourages graduates to focus on their goals at the ceremony held at Dix Stadium Saturday, May 13, 2017.

Cameron Gorman

For the first time in Kent State University’s history, graduates from all eight campuses gathered together for commencement at Dix Stadium Saturday morning.

Parents and friends shouted recognitions from the stands as the graduates entered, followed by the President’s Party heralded by bagpipe musicians. The officials at the commencement included: Kent State President Beverly Warren, Provost Todd Diacon and speaker and Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer.

“This ceremony is a tangible transformation of our one university vision. It is a bold statement to the world that Kent State is elevating the stature of its community to be among the largest and most respected public research universities in the country,” said Warren in her address to the assembled community members, faculty and students.

The ceremony began in bright sunlight as associate professor Deborah Smith carried the ceremonial mace down the blue carpet that led the way to the stage. The parade of selected students bearing the gonfalons of their colleges followed faculty and administrators down the path.

“It’s awesome … the culmination of years of hard work and effort, and it’s really a great time of celebration. It’s the best,” said Michael Tubergen, a chair in the department of chemistry and biochemistry.

Carliss Bishop, a parent of a psychology and criminology and justice studies graduate, said she felt “excitement” for her daughter.

“She’s the first one in my immediate family to graduate from college, so it’s a very good day for us,” Bishop said.

The national anthem, sung by Kishna Fowler, an assistant professor of music, was followed by an overhead fly-by by the Kent State Precision Flight Team of aviators.

“Today, we celebrate one university with graduates from all eight of our campuses. We also celebrate students first,” said Lawrence Pollock, a chair of the university’s Board of Trustees. “What an opportunity you all have, and we’re so pleased to be part of it.”

Samuel Graska, the student body president, addressed his peers before Warren gave her speech. Graska quoted Walt Disney as he encouraged his fellow graduates to follow Disney’s philosophy of chasing dreams.

“Kent State is distinctive among universities,” Warren said. “We are a vibrant and diverse community of more than 40,000 students, and 234,000 alumni worldwide, but we are also a tightly-knit family whose futures are forever intertwined through our Kent State experience. As soon-to-be alumni of Kent State University, this is your great heritage.”

Warren then presented the President’s Medal to distinguished professor C. Owen Lovejoy for his work in human evolution and anthropology, followed by the introduction of Spencer.

In her speech, Spencer addressed the graduates with advice to stay focused on their goals, enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that came with earning their degrees and discussed her own educational history.

“I know many of you are filled with relief, exhilaration and perhaps a bit of anticipation for what tomorrow brings,” Spencer said. “To the family and friends here supporting this remarkable class, take a moment to look at them — each of them. Their diplomas represent both the years of hard work behind them and the new opportunities that lie ahead.”

Prior to her speech, Spencer had been stationed in a white tent behind the stadium, where select students had been designated to meet and converse with her.

“Education is the key … I mean, where I was born, we didn’t have very much, and my mom always, always expressed how significant education was and is,” Spencer said. “And the two charities that I support, with a lot more time than most, are education-based. And it’s good that you guys are all here, getting your diplomas.”

One of the students selected to meet with her was sophomore and fashion merchandising major Ashlynn Thompson.

“I prepared a whole bunch of questions, actually,” Thompson said. “Just stuff that I wanted to ask her because I’ve never met a famous person before, ever, so yeah, I was nervous. She’s so gracious. She’s so personable.”

Spencer encouraged the graduates to take pride in their accomplishments.

“You’ve reached a mountain top today,” Spencer said. “You’ve persisted to get here, and I’m honored to be a part of it with you. It’s an achievement that not everyone receives, so take a deep breath. Look around. Remember this feeling.”

Spencer, who won an Academy Award for her role in “The Help,” and was nominated for her role in the “Hidden Figures” in 2017, also emphasized that the journey of growth is not over simply because of the ending of a formal education.

She told graduates to keep their minds and hearts open to the endless possibilities in life.

“Now, there might be a temptation to think that these were the best years of your lives because of everything and everyone you discovered here,” Spencer said. “But that would be too narrow a vision. Too myopic. I promise you that everyone here has been a part of shaping you for a future you could never have dreamt for yourself, but my dear graduates, let me be frank: The best years are very much ahead of you.”

LaKysha Robinson, who graduated as a criminology and justice studies major, said she was “very excited” that she finished with her bachelor’s degree, and to see Spencer speak.

“That was the highlight of my graduation experience,” Robinson said. “Everyone I know was looking forward to it. I tried very hard to remember some of the quotes so that I could tweet them later.”

The graduates exited to the sound of a steel drum band, many stopping to take photographs with their families on the green of the stadium lawn as they left the festivities.

“This end today is also a beginning,” Spencer said. “Most endings are if you’re paying attention.”

Cameron Gorman is a senior reporter, contact her at [email protected]