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In online celebration, Monmouth College’s Class of 2020 encouraged to be leaders during uncertain times

Barry McNamara
05/17/2020

MONMOUTH, Ill. – Monmouth College graduates throughout the years have been told that their contributions to society are needed “now more than ever.” 

In the midst of a global pandemic, those words have never rung more true. Monmouth’s Class of 2020 heard that sentiment expressed by both featured speakers during a Sunday ceremony that was held online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. An on-campus ceremony is scheduled to be held Sept. 19. 

The online ceremony and other commencement weekend events can be viewed at monmouthcollege.edu/commencement20. 

The Sunday ceremony replicated the feel of the College’s traditional Commencement exercises as much as possible, including the playing of bagpipes at the beginning and ending of the 40-minute ceremony, conferring of the degrees in Latin, and a stirring Zoom performance of the College alma mater, “A Flame of White and Crimson,” by the Monmouth Chorale.


Monmouth’s 194 graduates were addressed by one of their classmates, Hadley Smithhisler of Valley City, N.D. – the College’s 2019 Student Laureate of the Lincoln Academy of Illinois – as well as by Millennium Campus Network co-founder Sam Vaghar.
 

In his remarks, Vaghar shared the story of television personality Fred Rogers. 

“When he was young and he saw unsettling news, his mother told him, ‘Look for the helpers. There are always people who are helping,’” said Vaghar. “Those words from his mother comforted him. Even in times of disaster, he knew that there were always many people who were helpers and cared about the world.” 

Vaghar challenged the College’s Class of 2020: “Seek out avenues to make a difference in other people’s lives. ... Lead with humility and humanity. You are the helpers, the visionaries, the dreamers and the doers, and the world needs you right now.”  

Vaghar was conferred an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters during the College’s 163rd Commencement ceremony. 

Smithhisler took her classmates back to the fall of 2016, when they were first-year students and the common reading in their “Introduction to Liberal Arts” class was The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. 

“In that journey of a book, Jeannette Walls wrote that ‘sometimes you need a little crisis to get your adrenaline flowing and help you realize your potential,’” said Smithhisler. “We are in our own worldwide crisis.” 

She said the coronavirus has revealed some “dark problems” with our world – among them the environment, racism, sexism, poverty and the current political divide. 

“I hope that Monmouth has shown you that you have potential and that you realize that we have a responsibility to take what we’ve learned these past four years and these weeks sheltering in place and start to fix these problems and make our little corners of the world better,” said Smithhisler. 

Vaghar used his story of how he came to start the Millennium Campus Network, which serves as a platform for college students making a difference, as an inspiration to the graduates. 

“I learned that over 700 million people live on less than $1.90 a day in extreme poverty,” he recalled of his time as a college student. “But I also learned there were small things I could do to address that crisis and related global challenges. I picked up the phone and made cold calls and sent emails to global leaders I had never met and they responded,” which led him to co-founding, from his dorm room, the Millennium Campus Network. 

“For your career, the best advice I can offer is never be afraid to talk to anyone,” said Vaghar. “Reach out to people you trust and ask for help.” 

During the ceremony, faculty promotions were announced, with four professors receiving tenure: Kasia Bartoszynska (English), Brad Rowe and Michelle Holschuh Simmons (both educational studies) and Keith Schaefer (modern languages, literatures and cultures). 

Faculty members Farhat Haq and Anne Mamary were recognized as recipients of the Hatch Award for Excellence in Teaching. A professor of political science, Haq was recognized for scholarship, while Mamary, who teaches philosophy and religious studies, was honored for service. 

Smithhisler was one of nine students were recognized as summa cum laude graduates of the College: The other eight students were: Caitlyn Allen of Marengo, Illinois; Natalie Grace Cordoba of Morton, Illinois; Joshua John Dale Gross of La Moille, Illinois; McCauley Michael Johnston of Wyoming, Illinois; Lauren Sperry of Alexis, Illinois; Kyle Donald Streeter of Galva, Illinois; Jordan Taylor Utter of Germantown Hills, Illinois; and Amy Kathryn Vellenga-Buban of Monmouth. 

Throughout Commencement weekend, graduates and their family members shared pictures and video clips from their home celebrations, and the annual Senior Gala was held on Facebook Live. 

Smithhisler praised her classmates for their perseverance during the unprecedented time, and looked ahead to the fall, when an on-campus celebration for the Class of 2020 is planned for Sept. 19. 

“In a lot of ways, this diploma, at this particular moment, is harder earned than others,” she said. “We collectively survived months of social distancing, and we finished the last moments of our degree, our college lives, separated from friends and professors, in Zoom classes and Moodle discussion boards, sometimes in difficult or unsafe places, in uncomfortable learning environments, in a scary world. ... We overcame quite a bit to earn this degree.

“Congrats, Class of 2020. I’ll see you in September.”