May 27, 2007

Convocation Includes Sun, Speeches and Record Class Gift

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“Beautiful weather, terrific outcome of the senior class campaign, great speaker,” said President Skorton summing up the Convocation ceremony of Cornell’s 139th Commencement held Saturday at Schoellkopf Stadium. “What we had is exactly what I was hoping for.”
A Convocation ceremony volunteer, Kathaleen Mason, said that Convocation organizers were expecting 15,000 attendees.
Seats on the field at Schoellkopf — not the bleachers in the stadium above — were reserved for trustees, speakers and performers and the families of those involved in the ceremony, according to Mason.
Before the ceremony began, however, members of the general audience were invited to sit in the reserved seating area.
“We opened up the reserved seating to the general audience so everyone can get a better view,” said Lucy Duan, a volunteer for the Convocation ceremony, who is a student at DeWitt Middle School. “Less people showed up than expected.”
Elizabeth Giorgos ’07, a member of the Convocation Committee, echoed Duan’s statement: “We did have the front area reserved, but people didn’t show up, so we opened it up to the general audience. It looks bad if it’s empty.”
The Convocation ceremony began with Scottie McQuilkin ’07, alumni co-president, sharing what she said was the “phenomenal results” of the senior class’ Givestrong fundraising campaign.
A $82,702 check, the proceeds from the GiveStrong campaign, was presented to Cornell by McQuilkin and Edvard Gumbs, Cornell senior class president, on behalf of the class of 2007.
According to McQuilkin, 1,664 seniors — 51.2 percent of the class of 2007 — participated in the GiveStrong campaign.
“We shattered records across many categories,” McQuilkin said in reference to the success of GiveStrong.
Skorton characterized the class of 2007 as a “class of achievers,” and said that they have a bond with all of their classmates, and with the 250,000 Cornell alumni across the world.
Given that this year marks the bicentennial celebration of Ezra Cornell’s birthday, Skorton highlighted aspects of Cornell’s biography that stand as the “ideals and constants of the Cornell experience.”
These ideals and constants include a love of natural beauty, the combination of practical learning and classical studies, the belief in education for the public good and the importance of educational opportunities for women, according to Skorton.
Skorton went on to introduce Convocation speaker Soledad O’Brien, a CNN anchor and special correspondent for the program on CNN titled “CNN: Special Investigations Unit.”
The announcement of O’Brien’s selection as Convocation speaker was not met, overall, with a positive response. According to an article in The Sun in response to the controversy over O’Brien, members of the Convocation Committee believed that Cornell’s administration did not meet expectations set for them in terms of finding a speaker.
According to the article mentioned above, the committee must work with approximately $30,000 — taken from the Student Assembly’s student activities fee — to offer the speaker.
“People were complaining that we didn’t have a big-name speaker and that no one had heard of her,” said Larissa Paschyn ’07 after the ceremony. “And before, she struck me as not really important or prestigious, but the speech she gave was great. She was down-to-earth, and I’m really thankful she spoke.”
O’Brien began her speech by stating that she does not believe in advice.
After having told her mother about racially insensitive comments she received, her mother said, “Lovey, most people are idiots.”
“And that was the most truthful advice I ever got,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien then spoke about how her parents met as graduate students at Johns Hopkins University in the 1950s. Both went to mass daily; her mother, an Afro-Cuban immigrant, would walk and her father, an Australian of Irish descent, would drive until her father offered her mother a ride. And from that point — after the ice was broken — the two went around to “restaurant after restaurant” in Baltimore. None would seat, let alone serve, an interracial couple. O’Brien’s mother ended up making O’Brien’s father dinner.
“She would tell this story to me and my brothers and sisters not to talk about the injustice of segregation and discrimination, but to say that if you can cook, you can get a man,” O’Brien said. “We saw that it wasn’t really about cooking, though.”
As an interracial couple, her parents could not be married in Maryland.
O’Brien used this anecdote to bridge into discussing how the class of 2007 “should not let other people define them.”
“There are so many people who want to weigh in on your life and define success for you, but you have to follow your own heart,” O’Brien said. “Don’t worry about finding a job, find your passion — there are a zillion paths to success.”
O’Brien’s said that the interviews she conducts almost every day as a journalist have shown how “ordinary people who do extraordinary things can teach people more about life than stars, millionaires and politicians.”
After her speech, O’Brien was awarded with a Cornell medallion.
Referring to O’Brien’s meeting and greeting of audience members after the ceremony, Skorton said that “she was very accessible — from the words of her speech to her actions.”
Convocation Chairperson, Janine Stanisz ’07, gave the Welcome at the ceremony. She drew a parallel between the “freshman herds” that first-year Cornell students form — because, she said, “they do not want to be alone” — and the coming-together of the entire class of 2007 for graduation ceremonies.
“We’re graduating all together like the herds we were in freshman year,” Stanisz said.
Much of the address by Edvard Gumbs ’07, Cornell senior class president, focused on the idea of responsibility. Gumbs harked back to the words on responsibility as a social force of John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Rockefeller Hall on Central Campus is a gift of John D. Rockefeller.
Gumbs said that the class of 2007 has a responsibility to “our lifeline and support system, our family and friends,” to “continue our educational quest,” and to “our alma mater, Cornell.”
Kevin Smith, of Cleveland, whose niece is a member of the Class of 2007 said that Convocation was a wonderful ceremony overall: “It was held with dignity, style and class and there was a receptive audience.”
Before Convocation, Sarah Fox of Philadelphia, whose son is a Cornell student graduating December 2007, said that Soledad’s appearance as speaker was “exciting,” and that she’s always watched her on CNN.”
Fox did not believe that politics have a place in a Convocation speech. Kevin Fox of Philadelphia, recalled a speech made by Bono from U2 at the 2004 University of Pennsylvania commencement ceremony: “He spoke about how every generation has a moral flaw, and that ours is that we think one human life is worth more than any other — he connected it to his work in Africa with AIDs.”
“Bono got the students thinking globally, not just about themselves,” Fox said. “The speech should give a message of hope, and shouldn’t encourage students to be self-focused.”