Ohio Stadium housed Ohio State’s largest graduating class ever for the 415th commencement on Sunday. Students, faculty, parents and photographers filled the stadium for a ceremony which included speeches from University President Michael Drake, Columbus-based philanthropist Abigail Wexner and former Undergraduate Student Government President Gerard Basalla.
In total, 11,734 students from 88 countries and six continents graduated: 279 receiving doctorate degrees, 1,849 receiving master’s degrees and 8,739 receiving bachelor’s and associate’s degrees.
Wexner reflected on her past, and the details that might not be known by the public in her commencement address.
“I am keenly aware of the legends, the giants who stood on this stage before me: astronauts, war heroes and presidents,” Wexner said. “From where I am now, you might have imagined my life history differently. That it contained privilege or pedigree.”
However, she revealed that she experienced great adversity growing up in a poor family of Jewish immigrants and attending an under-performing public school in New York City.
“My beloved parents — Jewish immigrants who came to this country after World War II — could not afford the educational opportunities that ultimately lifted me from my circumstances,” Wexner said.
These opportunities came to her through the hands of the man leading an elite NYC charter school, who gave her a full scholarship to attend when she was 11 years old.
Thus, her passion for helping poverty-stricken children receive quality education began.
After graduating college – the first in her family to do so – she began a life filled with philanthropic work, she said.
“A child denied the God-given right to achieve full potential because they are poor or sick or stuck in a failing system — that injustice stirs my soul,” Wexner said. “I wanted to — had to — do for others what was once done to me. “
She said the degrees given to those in attendance also came with the right and privilege to reach out and do something that matters.
“I implore you, class of 2017, do not be overwhelmed or paralyzed or discouraged. Now, perhaps more than ever, you cannot afford to wait for perfect solutions, for silver bullets,” Wexner said. “They’re not out there. You cannot wait until your passion is perfectly defined. Put your head down and begin pursuing just a bit more fairness. A bit more justice. A bit more kindness.”
Congratulations, Buckeyes, and Godspeed. – Michael V. Drake
Drake encouraged students to go into the world and find synchronicity in themselves and in the things that matter most in living a good life: mental stability and passion.
“My message to the graduating class of today is simply dream big,” Drake said.
He ended his speech with an ode to John Glenn, the former U.S. Senator, first American astronaut to orbit the Earth, and namesake of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, who passed away this year at 95.
“It was not just what he did that left an impact,” Drake said. “That’s not what we remember or what we miss about him — not what inspires us. It was who he was and how he lived.”
Drake quoted Glenn, saying “If there was one thing I have learned in my years on this planet, it’s that the happiest and most fulfilled people I’ve known are those who have devoted themselves to something bigger and more profound than merely their own self interest.”
Drake said he sees the passion and drive Glenn demonstrated throughout his life in the graduating class of 2017.
“We have done our best to serve you,” Drake said. “We know that you will live the joy of service to the world. Congratulations, Buckeyes, and Godspeed.”
For the first time in OSU’s known history, a student spoke at commencement. Basalla reflected on his time as a student, and the experiences one could have while attending the university.
“I’m also sure I speak for many students who will remember the great times of going to our favorite High Street establishments to hang out with friends and celebrate great times,” Basalla said. “We will also remember with probably disdain but also pride late nights at Thompson library and the (18th Avenue Library) attempting to get off Twitter, while glaring at those who were talking too loudly.”
He said that for many students, OSU was not just a college campus, but a home.
“One thing is true for all of us. When we came here, we came home,” Basalla said. “We were officially Buckeyes tied to a higher purpose of ourselves no matter who we are, what we believed in, where we came from. We belonged at this home.”
As the thousands of students walked what they were told could be a distance of a half-mile to get their degrees, the absence of a few members of the 2017 graduating class was felt particularly.
Reagan Tokes and Adam Doleh, two students who passed away prior to commencement, were honored as their families stood on stage accepting their posthumous degrees in commemoration.
Tokes was granted a posthumous Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Doleh was given a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering.
As their parents and extended family stood on the stage, cheers grew in volume as audience members came together as one to support the grieving families.
This moment, perhaps, encapsulated the “home” Basalla spoke of. A home that is used as shelter during the brightest and the darkest times. A sense of home felt on Nov. 26 when fans filled the ‘Shoe’s field as OSU beat Michigan in double overtime.
A home that was shaken just two days later on Nov. 28, when a violent attack took place on campus. Students were notified via Buckeye Alert and waited for hours wondering and fearing for what was happening outside of their classrooms, blocks away from their friends and minutes away from the stadium — the heartbeat of their home — they had just celebrated in.
A home that mourned the loss of those gone too soon.
And a home that celebrated together as one after the other grabbed shoulders with those next to them and sang ‘Carmen Ohio’ for the first time as alumni.