The University of St. Thomas bestowed 1,214 graduate degrees on May 24 during an in-person ceremony, with social distancing and face coverings serving as visible proof of the many challenges the students faced this academic year.

“We did it. We have overcome not only academic and personal tests but faced difficult times, which have impacted our community as a whole,” said Minneapolis-based student-speaker Erin Mortenson, who will use her Master of Science degree in manufacturing engineering in the medical device industry. Acknowledging just how much had transpired since she and her classmates chose to advance their education, she added. “The university, the professors and the students traversed challenging terrain through a global pandemic and civil unrest in our own backyards.”

After a virtual ceremony due to the pandemic last year, months of detailed planning went into ensuring this year’s ceremonies, while modified due to the COVID-19, could proceed in-person. Two outdoor ceremonies at O’Shaughnessy Stadium, was a moment of special pride in this year’s graduates, noted President Julie Sullivan.

“You have handled two academic years like no others in this university’s history,” Sullivan said in her address. “You have demonstrated resilience, adaptability, perseverance, kindness and grace, and we couldn’t be more grateful to you and to your families. You truly embody the meaning of “the common good.”

Commencement speaker Zadonna Slay speaks to her fellow students during the graduate commencement ceremony. Liam James Doyle/University of St. Thomas

Commencement speaker Zadonna Slay speaks to her fellow students during the graduate commencement ceremony. Liam James Doyle/University of St. Thomas

Graduating with a Doctorate of Social Work, student-speaker ZaDonna Slay encouraged her peers to commit to the chapters ahead.

“We have chosen our respective fields of study. Whether it’s education, public safety and law, creative writing, pastoral leadership, nursing, psychology, or social work, we have selected a career path that is committed to public service and the common good. It is with hope that your respective areas of practice will allow you to further fuel your passion and recommit to your purpose,” Slay said.

The graduates engaged in a time-honored St. Thomas tradition when they gave a standing ovation to their loved ones who supported them through graduate school. Opus College of Business student-speaker, Ifedi Obidiegwu, acknowledged the perseverance and resilience of his classmates and their familial support system.

“Over the same time period, I’ve gained a deeper appreciation for my family, and I hope many of you have as well. Spending more quality time with my family [during the pandemic] has been a blessing. As you celebrate this extraordinary accomplishment with your family, please keep in mind you just joined another family. You are now a graduate-level alumna or alumnus,” said Obidiegwu, who was also celebrating a recent promotion to manager in the technology consulting practice of Ernst & Young, said.

“Graduating with my MBA is special. It’s an accomplishment and a launch pad all in one. I’m so proud to have completed my degree, and I’m so excited to see what’s next.” – Sara Greer, graduating with a degree from the Opus College of Business.

“[At first] I didn’t plan on walking, but I decided that this year was so difficult, I owed it to myself to take some time and honor my hard work. When I received my cap and gown, it just felt like an achievement, like I had really accomplished something and somehow, these pieces of fabric made it real. Graduating is giving me a sense of accomplishment and knowledge that I never thought I’d have.” — Frank Matejcek, graduating with a degree from the Opus College of Business.

“To me, graduating this weekend is a huge accomplishment. My journey as a doctoral student had many curves, and at times, I was not sure if I would get to the finish line… I am forever grateful to my family, friends, cohort 27 family, colleagues, professors, and dissertation committee who were there cheering for me every step of the way,” Shirley Kramer – graduating with a degree from the School of Education.

“This degree has a ripple effect: It will positively impact the hundreds of social work students I hope to educate over the course of my career,” Margaret Miles, MSW, LICSW, graduating with a degree from the School of Social Work.

“In a special way this afternoon, we also remember Olivia Demeuse, a classmate who has died, but who is with us today in our hearts. May she continue to enjoy eternal peace with her creator.” — Father Chris Collins, incoming vice president for mission.

“In my first year of my master’s program my academic advisor and coordinator of aging services, Tanya Rand, gave me the following advice: “What do you need to say no to [in order] to say yes to yourself?” Since then, I have learned to advocate for my learning needs even when it’s uncomfortable to make the most of my academic experience.” – Annie Myers, LSW, graduating with a degree from the School of Social Work.

“Invest in building community with your classmates from the start. My classmates have become trusted colleagues who I will lean on often for advice.” – Chris Zupfer, graduating with a degree from the Opus College of Business.

“I am a proud ‘Double Tommie.’ My time at the University of St. Thomas has been edifying and life-changing and I look forward to any opportunities of collaboration to support and foster a change in people’s lives,” Sister Maria Elizabeth Nakku, Ed.D, a high school principal from Uganda, graduating with a degree from the School of Education.

“If I could give one piece of advice to those beginning their graduate degree, it would be to create and practice a good schedule. At the beginning the workload may seem overwhelming and almost impossible, but with good time management, which necessarily includes and is formed by prayer, the work becomes enjoyable…” – Richard E Whitney, graduating with a degree from the College of Arts and Sciences.

“My graduate program really helped affirm that there are careers within higher education that aligned with my personal goals. Thanks to my time in the classroom and in my Graduate Assistantship within Residence Life, I have landed a Residence Director position at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA. This is something I don’t think I would have been able to accomplish without the support of my incredible classmates, phenomenal instructors, and the broader St. Thomas community.” — Ben Clark, graduating with a degree from the School of Education.

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