Hartford, CT — More than 12,000 family members and friends filled the XL Center in Hartford on Tuesday, May 12, to cheer on their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, as 1,130 undergraduates and 70 graduate students received their diplomas at Eastern Connecticut State University’s 125th Commencement exercises.
Award-winning author and distinguished Eastern alumna Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ’01 was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters, Honoris Causa during the Commencement Exercises, and offered remarks following presentation of her honorary degree.
Adichie graduated summa cum laude from Eastern in 2001 with a degree in Communication. She was also awarded Eastern’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2004. In 2008, Adichie was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known around the world as the MacArthur Genius Award. She is the author of a collection of short stories, “The Thing around Your Neck,” and three novels. Her first novel, “Purple Hibiscus,” won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Her second novel, “Half of a Yellow Sun,” won the Orange Prize—the world’s top prize for female writers. Ms. Adichie’s latest novel, “Americanah,” was published in 2013, earning recognition as one of The New York Times Ten Best Books of the Year. Last month, Ms. Adichie was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.
In her remarks, Adichie told the graduates that she cherished the bachelor’s degree she received at Eastern. “You are very fortunate to have received your education at Connecticut’s public liberal arts university, where professors are keen to see you succeed.”
Adichie recalled that when she graduated 14 years ago, “I had doubts and worries. ‘What next?’ was the question on my mind. You are worried today just as I was. You would be worried, because it shows that you care. It is okay not to have all the answers.”
The noted author compared life to writing a novel. “I don’t always know where the story is headed, and sometimes the characters lead me along. It is the journey that matters to me.”
Adichie explained that her father had been kidnapped 10 days ago in Nigeria, only to be freed after the family paid a ransom. “This experience has caused me to reconsider what matters. As you graduate today, I want you to think about what really matters in your life. Commencement speakers tell audiences to ‘change the world,’ to ‘make a difference,’ ‘do something big!’ These are good ideas, but I tell you, be sure that your idea of ‘big’ is yours, not someone else’s.”
In concluding her remarks, Adichie encouraged the graduates to “make an effort and speak the truth. It is okay to say, “‘I am wrong’ or ‘I don’t know.’ Life on Earth is short. Each moment that we are not truthful to ourselves, we are wasting our time on Earth.”
Other speakers at the Commencement Exercises included Eastern President Elsa Nunez; attorney David Jimenez, who represented the Board of Regents for Higher Education; Senior Class President Dane Paracuelles; and Matthew Hicks ’15, who delivered the Senior Class Address. Other members of the platform party included Willimantic Mayor Ernie Eldridge; Justin Murphy ‘’98, president of the ECSU Foundation; Ellen Lang ‘’81, president of the ECSU Alumni Association; Father Larry LaPointe; and other Eastern officials.
Nunez told the audience that this year’s event was Eastern’s 125th Commencement Exercises. Looking back at Eastern’s beginnings when the school’s first leader, Yale graduate Arthur Morrill, and Willimantic city leaders had to convince state officials to bring a new normal school to the town, Nunez said, “From the very beginning, our institution has been marked by determination and a commitment to excellence. Those are two values that I believe will serve each of our graduates well as they go out into the world to make their own contributions.
“Our campus has grown from four rooms to more than 50 buildings on 82 acres and a campus footprint of almost two million square feet. In 1891, we graduated 22 students; today we have almost 1,200 graduates, and we are closing in on 30,000 alumni.”
Turning to the graduates, Nunez told them, “Our nation and the global society we live in are looking to you for leadership. As you embark on your career, take care of yourself, take care of your families, but make sure that you take time to help others when you can. You will find that supporting and helping others strengthens you. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote, “‘From caring comes courage.’”
“Amidst your joy and celebration, I ask you to spend some time today in reflection—please step back for a moment to think about your past four years, what you have learned, and what you are taking from Eastern as you continue your journey.”
More than 40 percent of the graduates were the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree. As Connecticut’s only public liberal arts university, Eastern draws students from 164 of the state’s 169 towns. Approximately 85 percent of graduates stay in Connecticut to launch their careers, contribute to their communities and raise their families.
Senior Class President Dane Paracuelles presented the Senior Class Gift to President Nunez—an annual Class of 2015 scholarship—and said the Commencement ceremony “symbolizes more than just earning a degree. It exemplifies the goals we have accomplished through personal growth, strength and ambition. We have traveled down our own unique paths; whether it was being involved with a variety of on-campus clubs and organizations, a student-athlete or even by supporting the Eastern and Willimantic community; there is something here that we can all cherish.”
David Jimenez, shareholder in the Hartford-based law firm of Jackson Lewis, which specializes in employment and labor law, spoke on behalf of the Board of Regents for Higher Education. “Today is a significant milestone in your life,” he said, “for which you should be incredibly proud. There is no short cut to getting a college degree. . . Whatever path you have chosen, you can make a difference.” Jimenez said the graduates were ready to be “solid citizens,” “prepared for the challenges of the 21st century economy.” Turning to the graduates, he concluded, “Pursue your goals with the same dedication that brought you to this day.”
In his Senior Class Address, Matthew Hicks said, “To be here is no small feat, each of us has sacrificed a great deal of time and energy to walk across this stage.” Noting that he and his classmates had endured a challenging four years at Eastern and “have come out critical thinkers, determined activists, and dedicated leaders,” Hicks concluded his remarks by saying, “Let us enter this new (challenge) with our heads held high, ready to take what we have learned here and change the world, and most of all, let us never forget the amazing people and memories we have made while discovering who we are.”
From the Governor’s Foot Guard Color Guard in attendance, to the plaintive sound of the bagpipes of the St. Patrick’s Pipe Band and the pre-event music of the Thread City Brass Quintet, this year’s graduation ceremonies again reflected the University’s Commencement traditions of dignity and grace. University Senate President Gregory Kane presided over the commencement exercises; seniors Emily Chuber, Rachel Jung and Emma Kuehnle sang “America the Beautiful”; Senior Avery Schena gave the invocation; and Psychology Professor Jeffrey Danforth was recognized as the 2015 Distinguished Professor Award recipient.
Eastern Connecticut State University is the state of Connecticut’s public liberal arts university, serving more than 5,300 students annually at its Willimantic campus and satellite locations. In addition to attracting students from 164 of Connecticut’s 169 towns, Eastern also draws students from 24 other states and 50 other countries. A residential campus offering 40 majors and 56 minors, Eastern offers students a strong liberal art foundation grounded in an array of applied learning opportunities. Ranked in the top 30 public universities in the North Region, by U.S. News and World Report in its 2015 Best College ratings, Eastern has also been awarded “Green Campus” status by the U.S. Green Building Council six years in a row. For more information, visit www.easternct.edu.