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SLU Education Prepares Midyear Graduates to Thrive By Embracing the Unexpected

Even as they anticipated the applause and burst of confetti that would greet them as Saint Louis University’s newest alumni, the graduating students gathered at the University’s Midyear Commencement on Friday, Dec. 15, along with their families, friends and the SLU community, were reminded of how the education they received at SLU, and the community they found there, would help them thrive when life surprised them.

Saint Louis University celebrated its Midyear Commencement at Chaifetz Arena on Friday, Dec. 15.Saint Louis University celebrated its Midyear Commencement at Chaifetz Arena on Friday, Dec. 15.

 “Looking back, it took me a while to understand that these past four years have been the good old days,” Joshua VanKooten, the commencement’s student speaker recalled. “It took me a while to witness what was so special about SLU.”

After a rocky start to his college experience, the new graduate from the Chaifetz School of Business was diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica, a disease that is similar to multiple sclerosis during his sophomore year. He temporarily lost his ability to walk and was hospitalized.

“It wasn’t until I was lying in a hospital bed, back home in Denver, that I realized the greatness and power of the SLU community,” VanKooten recalled. During his treatment, he said, he received support from people he’d met at SLU, through phone calls and texts.

Returning to campus for his remaining three years, VanKooten spoke about opening up to peers and faculty members through long discussions and embracing new ideas and views. Inspired to start a podcast featuring SLU students and faculty members, he said he wanted to “let others share in the dialogue that was so transformative in my life.”

“I understand now that the SLU experience makes us vulnerable to the world and then gives us the people, knowledge and tools to turn those vulnerabilities into strengths,” Van Kooten continued.

Lauren Arnold, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology in the College for Public Health and Social Justice, this year’s winner of the Nancy McNeir Ring Award, echoed VanKooten’s story about surprising life events that shaped the course of the future. 

Be creative as you seek change. And when things don’t go according to plan, don’t worry, it will all work out.”

Lauren Arnold, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology 

Arnold, a noted scholar in areas related to cancer research, came to SLU in 2012 and only intended to stay a few years, she said. But her life’s plan changed, something she’d learned would happen in her own undergraduate experience.

“Sitting here today, maybe some of you knew what you wanted to do from the first day you started college and you are a step closer to that goal,” Arnold said. “Maybe some of you are like me – you thought you knew what you wanted but that changed.”

Arnold detailed her shifts from double majoring in math and music to balancing a year-long opportunity in England with her new premed major. From there, Arnold explained, she switched from studying to be a physician to her eventual route to a doctorate in public health, to spending a decade in a city where the New Jersey native thought she would spend three or four years. 

“Every step of the way there were challenges,” Arnold told the crowd. “As much as I wanted a plan, I learned to be, somewhat, comfortable expecting the unexpected and to find creative ways to deal with that change.”

That lesson, she said, was one that SLU’s newest graduates should bear in mind, much like VanKooten urged them.

“The decisions you face today are only the start,” Arnold explained. “You will continuously have choices to make in both your professional and personal life. And each time you face these choices, you owe it to yourself and to others who will be affected by your decisions to critically examine the situation from difference perspectives and to consider creative solutions.”

She reminded the graduates to find the joy in their decisions and to surround themselves with good mentors, like those they had met at SLU and at other points in their paths to commencement.

“Be creative as you seek change,” Arnold said. “And when things don’t go according to plan, don’t worry, it will all work out.”

Following the traditional entry procession led by the University mace bearer Susan Tebb, Ph.D., professor of social work, University President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D., congratulated the new graduates before speaking about the life and legacy of Norm White, Ph.D., a widely-recognized SLU criminologist, who died suddenly on Wednesday, Dec. 6. Pestello noted the empty chair draped with White’s doctoral hood that had been placed on the dais as a memorial.

“He embodied SLU at its best,” Pestello said. “He cared deeply about his life’s work. He made immeasurable strides in addressing the disparities of marginalized people, especially children. In short, Norm was a great man – a loyal and compassionate friend; a loving son, husband and father. He was an engaged teacher, scholar and mentor.” 

Pestello leads the moment of silence

University President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D., led those assembled in a moment of silence for those that the University has lost this year, including Norm White, Ph.D.,  a faculty member known for his work with the most marginalized children and families in St. Louis. Photo by Amelia Flood

After asking those gathered to pause for a moment of silence in White’s honor, Pestello reminded the graduating students that their journeys have not ended. They have only begun.

“Wherever your path takes you, lead with love and mercy, use every opportunity to make ‘things the way they ought to be,’” Pestello told the graduates, "and when asked ‘what a Billiken looks like,’ show them!”

University Provost Nancy Brickhouse, Ph.D., had welcomed the new graduates by noting the bonds formed as SLU’s faculty and University community help the new graduates “develop both educationally and as whole persons capable of making a difference in the world.”

The Dec. 15 ceremony had begun with a prayer by Justin Daffron, S.J., special assistant to the president for growth strategies, and included a performance by the University Mastersingers and a University student ensemble. After the new graduates were recognized by school, college or center, Pestello declared the new graduates to be “sons and daughters of Saint Louis University,” making them the newest Billiken alumni. Christopher Collins, S.J., assistant to the president for mission and identity, led the crowd at Chaifetz Arena in prayer to close the commencement ceremony.

The new graduates and their loved ones then gathered to celebrate at special reception areas set up throughout the Chaifetz arena concourse, making their way through a sea of smiles, confetti and streamers.

Founded in 1818, Saint Louis University is one of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious Catholic institutions. Rooted in Jesuit values and its pioneering history as the first university west of the Mississippi River, SLU offers nearly 13,000 students a rigorous, transformative education of the whole person. At the core of the University’s diverse community of scholars is SLU’s service-focused mission, which challenges and prepares students to make the world a better, more just place.