During a Commencement weekend when happy moments were shared and celebrated, members of the Monmouth College Class of 2023 urged to build human relationships and serve others.
The 190 graduates who received their diplomas during Monmouth College’s 166th Commencement Exercises on Mother’s Day joined a very exclusive club.
In his remarks to the Class of 2023, former U.S. Congressman Richard A. Gephardt told the students they were now in the “7% Club,” as there are only about 500 million people in the world — out of roughly 8 billion — who have a college degree.
Both Gephardt and Saturday’s Baccalaureate speaker — College Chaplain the Rev. John Huxtable ’04 — praised that accomplishment and gave the graduates new goals to attain, with a theme of helping others.
Happiness and relationships
Gephardt referenced the Declaration of Independence’s reference to the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“It was an incredible statement,” said Gephardt, a Democrat who was a U.S. representative from the St. Louis area from 1977-2005, House Majority Leader from 1989-95 and Minority Leader from 1995-2003. “This had never happened in human history. Not only can we govern ourselves, but we don’t need a potentate to tell us what to do.”
And it’s not money that brings that happiness, he said.
“At the end of life, success is not how much stuff you have, or how much wealth you have,” said Gephardt, who also received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the College. “It’s about the human relationships you have and how much you’ve helped other people.”
In a message of unification he titled “Go Forth with Purpose,” Huxtable read a favorite passage of his written by Trappist monk and theologian Thomas Merton, then shared his thoughts.
“Your call is to walk into the greater community with a sense of purpose – with a sense of seeing the true nature of humanity in all creation,” said Huxtable. “Tear down the walls that continue to keep people on the margins and at arm’s length. Each of you can go forth into the world with a purpose of changing the narratives of ‘us versus them’ until there is only us.”
Gephardt told the graduates they lived in “the best country in the world” to be able to think about opportunities that would make them “happy, excited and motivated.”
An example he gave was a New York City cab driver from Bangladesh he met. The man worked hard, saved his money and was not only able to purchase a fleet of a dozen black cars to transport people around the city, but two of his three children became lawyers and the other became a doctor.
“The best advice I can give is to be intentional of ‘What is happiness to me?'” said Gephardt. “Don’t be afraid to visit and revisit that question.”
Gephardt said his son, Matt, asked that question of himself and, after experiencing success selling software, decided to pursue his childhood dream of running a restaurant, since such a place “will make people happy.” Matt has since expanded his Village Burger restaurant to have seven locations in the Atlanta area, providing not only high-quality food but investing in relationships with his employees so that he hasn’t lost one in his 10 years in the business.
In his message, Huxtable referenced another person with Atlanta ties, Martin Luther King Jr.
Huxtable said King would say that “church is not where you come to, but it is where you go forth from.”
“Monmouth can be looked at in an equivalent manner in that this is a place where you go from, not where you come to,” he said. “Throughout your time here, you have been preparing to go forth with purpose. The purpose is not simply to get an excellent job, but rather it is to create a better world for all to live in. … We are called to embody a willingness to embrace and to welcome the stranger, outcast and those without.”
Pride and independence
The other featured speaker at the Commencement ceremony was senior Addison Cox of Morton, Illinois, the College’s Student Laureate of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois.
She looked back on how she and her classmates were constantly learning, growing and adapting during their time at Monmouth, including the first two years of their experience, which were both altered significantly by the COVID pandemic.
“Take pride in who you have become and who you will become,” she said.
Pride was apparent among the graduates and in the large turnout of family members and friends who showed up to support them at the ceremony, which was held in the Huff Athletic Center fieldhouse because of a threat of stormy weather.
One graduate’s father, Craig Nichols of Wataga, Illinois, made that pride readily apparent, wearing a shirt that proclaimed, “I’m a proud dad of a freaking awesome daughter.”
That daughter, art major Jennie Nichols, said that she’d learned to adapt during her time at Monmouth, which helped her develop “versatile” skills.
“It’s not what I was expecting, but it’s definitely where it went,” she said of writing a novel while in college, which is now where she hopes to place her career focus.
Standing nearby while waiting to process, Nick Obsaint of Naples, Florida: said, “I learned that I had to become more consistent, and more independent, as well. I’ve had to rely on myself more and hold myself accountable.”
Elikem Ogba came to Monmouth from Ghana.
“I left my home for a different world,” she said. “I learned that I had to be more independent and make more choices for myself. Monmouth College put me in a spot to grow as an individual.”
Ivair Pacheco of Chicago is headed to a different world on May 16, joining a group of around 20 other students on a college-sponsored trip to New Zealand and Australia. Pacheco, who hopes to become a crisis counselor, shared a simple lesson: “I learned how to keep my own peace. If something’s not making me happy, why am I bothering with it?”
After all, as the Declaration of Independence says and as Gephardt would echo, we all have a right to be happy.
Honors and retirements
Fifteen members of the Class of 2023 graduated summa cum laude, with the highest distinction, which means they finished with a cumulative grade point average of 3.90 to 4.00. In addition to Cox, those students included:
Kaitlyn Fox of Villa Park, Illinois; Karen Fredrick of St. Charles, Illinois; Jeffrey Garrett of Aledo, Illinois; Shay Hafner of Sterling, Illinois; Danielle Hagens of Aledo, Illinois; Kassidy Johnson of Petersburg, Illinois; Clarissa Kampe of Peculiar, Missouri; Samera Lesher of Galesburg, Illinois; Tim McNally of Paw Paw, Illinois; Molly Parsons of Oquawka, Illinois; Hanna Pullen of Roanoke, Texas; Bailey Shimmin of Monmouth; Nicole Welch of Altona, Illinois; and Emma Wolfe of Galesburg, Illinois.
Faculty promotions were announced at Commencement. Promoted to full professor were Joanne Eary (mathematics, computer science and data science); Ashwani Kumar (physics and engineering) and Sean Schumm (exercise science). Receiving tenure and promotions to associate professor were Andre Audette (political science), Tamara La Prad (educational studies) and Robert Utterback (computer science).
Also announced were the recipients of the College’s three Hatch Awards for Academic Excellence. Classics professor Bob Simmons received the Hatch Award for service, while the Hatch Award for scholarship went to Anne Mamary from the department of philosophy and religious studies. Educational professor Michelle Holschuh Simmons received the Hatch Award for Distinguished Teaching.
The College also recognized two faculty members who retired at the end of the academic year after 34 and 22 years of teaching, respectively — Doug Rankin in theatre and Tim Tibbetts in biology.
Founded in 1853 and affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Monmouth College provides a transformative educational experience within a caring community of learners. A residential liberal arts college that is the birthplace of the women’s fraternity movement, Monmouth College empowers students to realize their full potential, live meaningful lives, pursue successful careers, and shape their communities and the world through service and leadership.
***Courtesy of Duane Bonifer, Monmouth College***