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Monmouth College’s Class of 2017 told their stories matter

Barry McNamara
05/14/2017
TOP: PBS executive Juan Sepúlveda; BOTTOM: A group of Monmouth College’s Class of 2017, including Michelle Ravel (lower left) of Monmouth, show off their tartan stoles prior to the College’s 160th Commencement Exercises on Sunday.
The members of Monmouth College’s Class of 2017 were told Sunday that their stories matter.
“We are wired as humans to be storytellers,” graduating senior Emma Vanderpool of Frankfort, Ill., said in the student address. “Our task is to be the crafters of our own stories.”
 

A total of 285 bachelor of arts degrees were conferred at the College’s 160th Commencement Exercises, held on a gorgeous summerlike afternoon on Wallace Hall Plaza.

In his main Commencement address, PBS executive Juan Sepúlveda drew on his story of being a first-generation college student to colorfully illustrate four main points: where one comes from matters, not letting others define you matters, learning the rules of the game matter and relationships matter.

To illustrate the second point, Sepúlveda told the story of one of his high school teachers in his native Topeka, Kansas, who thought Sepúlveda had set the bar too high for himself when he applied to Harvard, Yale and Brown. He was accepted at all three schools before choosing Harvard.

“Taking risks matters,” said Sepúlveda, who is PBS senior vice president, station services.

Another way to put it, he said, was expressed in a Native American proverb: “As you go the way of life you will see a great chasm. Jump. It’s not as wide as you think.”

Sepúlveda became the third Latino to be awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, and he earned degrees from Harvard University, Oxford University and Stanford University Law School. On Sunday, he was presented an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from Monmouth College.

Sepúlveda told the graduates that had he not taken risks, many of his professional accomplishments might not have been possible, including hosting his own public-television show, helping run President Obama’s 2008 campaign and serving in the Obama administration.

And on a Commencement day that coincided with Mother’s Day, Sepúlveda also acknowledged the role his parents played in his life. His stepfather drove 400,000 miles delivering him to and from Harvard and Stanford; his mother, unlike his teacher, “was always there to tell my brother and me that we would go to college.”

In her student address, Vanderpool referenced Jonathan Gottschall’s book The Storytelling Animal, which was a shared text for students in the College’s “Introduction to Liberal Arts” course.

Vanderpool, who last fall was selected as the College’s Student Laureate of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois, told her classmates that it’s all right if those stories contain contradictions, citing the poem “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman. In it, Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself/(I am large, I contain multitudes).”

Vanderpool, a Latin, history and classics triple major, also urged her classmates to think of the College’s Latin motto, Sit Lux – “let there be light.”

“We need to accept the contradictions we see in others and embrace them,” she said. “We need to offer our own light to a world that often seems dark and confused.”

The ceremony’s final speaker was senior class president Neriangela “Neddy” Velez of Chicago, who gave an emotional talk in which she thanked her mother for being behind her on her college journey.

“There were times we wondered who we were and why we are here,” Velez said in the “Farewell to the College” address. “There were times I thought maybe I should just quit while I was ahead. But we made it. We all made it. ... Nice job on getting through it all.”

Commencement weekend also included baccalaureate service, the Honor Walk and the Senior Gala, all of which were held on Saturday.

In his baccalaureate message, the Rev. Dr. Lewis Galloway, senior pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, urged seniors to “thrive, don’t just survive.”

“Part of what you gain here at Monmouth College is the knowledge of what it takes to thrive, not just survive,” said Galloway. “Remember that your character has been formed by the ethos of this great college. … Be odd, be out of sync with the world, be your own best self, be the person God has created you to be, not somebody (that) somebody else is telling you to be.”

During Sunday’s Commencement, Vanderpool was one of nine members of the class to graduate summa cum laude. The others were: Matthew Barnes of Colfax, Ill., Brad Dulee of Bloomington, Ill., Carley Folluo of Davenport, Iowa, Jessica Fox of Carthage, Ill., Sarah Johnston of Victoria, Ill., Barbara Pajor of Oak Lawn, Ill., and Michelle Ravel and Rachel Witzig, both of Monmouth.

The Monmouth College Board of Trustees recently met and approved six faculty promotions, which were announced at Commencement. Brian Baugh (art) and Marsha Dopheide (psychology) were promoted to full professor. Promoted to associate professor were Tim Gaster (modern languages, literatures and cultures), Ashwani Kumar (physics), Connie Mersch (accounting) and Sean Schumm (kinesiology).

Four Monmouth professors who recently retired were thanked for their dedicated and loyal service to the College and named professors emeritus: James Betts, Lee McGaan, Ira Smolensky and William Wallace. Together, that quartet had 129 years of service to the College.

The board also made a special resolution for retiring Dean of Students Jacquelyn Condon, who also served the College as vice president for student life. Condon had 37 years of service at Monmouth, including 27 as dean.