For the newest alumni of Saint Louis University, 2017’s Commencement was not the end
of a journey but a chance, in the words of a fellow graduate, an acclaimed SLU alumna
and SLU President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D., to start embracing the many possibilities
of life beyond SLU.
New graduate Maria Walawender, the ceremony’s student speaker, described it as a search
for the magis, or “more,” through interdisciplinary scholarship and social engagement.
“I sought the truth and the magis in my courses, activities and involvement,” she
said. “Throughout my time at SLU, my search for the magis inevitably took me far beyond
the walls of Xavier or Ritter. I looked in the depths of my conversations with friends
… I learned from so many people who had no idea they were teaching me.”
Walawender, who majored in public health with minors in theology and global and local
social justice, has taken part SLU’s Global Brigades and was a SLU delegate to the
Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice in Washington, D.C. She will now go on to a career
in global health work.
Speaking to the crowd of more than 10,000 Saturday, Walawender advised her fellow
graduates to abandon “the tyranny of the ‘or’” and to replace it with an embrace of
the “the genius of the ‘and’” as they make their way beyond their time at Saint Louis
“As I began to better understand my own passions, SLU encouraged me and showed me
an array of possibilities,” Walawender said. “A mix of Ignatian reflection, Billiken
support, and fresh perspective helped me to understand my true vocation.”
I sought the truth and the magis in my courses, activities and involvement.
Maria Walawender, the 2017 ceremony's student speaker.
Walawender’s focus on finding the magis in her life was echoed by Pestello. He told the students that their SLU education
had prepared them to “use every opportunity to make ‘things the way they ought to
be,’” from helping re-shape their beloved Billiken to stepping out of comfort zones
to change the world for the better.
Commencement Speaker Diana Natalicio, Ph.D. (A&S ’61) described her own path in detail,
crediting her SLU education with opening a world well beyond what she, as a 17-year-old
switchboard operator, could have ever imagined. Since her own SLU graduation 56 years
ago, Natalicio has advised the White House, visited Antarctica as part of research
sponsored by the National Science Foundation and has attended the coronation of the
King of Bhutan.
“Frankly, standing here before you today seems quite improbable, too,” Natalicio said.
“Choosing to attend SLU turned out to be one of the most important and best decisions
I’ve ever made.”
Natalicio described her work to catch up with other students on coming to SLU as an
undergraduate. Her own experience, she said, led directly to her focus on increasing
access to higher education. She was recently lauded by Fortuneas one of the world’s top-50 leaders for her work at the University of Texas at El
Paso (UTEP), which has been recognized for its leading-edge work with marginalized
and economically disadvantaged students. She has also been named one of the world's
most influential people by Time magazine.
She urged Saturday’s graduates to seek out the unexpected and to strive to provide
other with the same access to higher education that SLU students enjoy, calling the
University a “critical crossroads.”
“Remember, too, that with the many benefits of degree completion come increased responsibilities,”
Natalicio said. “Use your fine SLU education to do well, but also remember that you’re
very well prepared to do good, too. Understand that the opportunity you had to study,
learn and grow at SLU was precious. Don’t for a moment take it for granted; do all
you can to share its benefit with others.”
Natalicio also received an honorary degree from SLU, as did Rich McClure, Rev. Starsky
Wilson and John Padberg, S.J., during Saturday’s ceremony. Wilson and McClure were
honored for their work as co-chairs of the Ferguson Commission. Padberg, also a SLU
alumnus (A&S ’49, Grad ’54), is an internationally recognized scholar and author.
The commencement opened with the traditional processional, singing of the national
anthem by the SLU Mastersingers and invocation by Padberg. Thomas Westfall, Ph.D.,
SLU chair emeritus and professor of pharmacological and physical sciences, carried
the University mace.
Use your fine SLU education to do well, but also remember that you’re very well prepared
to do good, too. Understand that the opportunity you had to study, learn and grow
at SLU was precious. Don’t for a moment take it for granted; do all you can to share
its benefit with others.
Both Pestello and Walawender reminded graduates that to be a Billiken is to embrace
a wider view of life head on after leaving Chaifetz Arena.
“Our time here has prepared us to be successful in our careers and socially conscious;
to have big plans and big hearts; to be active members of our communities and sons
and daughters of Saint Louis University forever,” Walawender said.
And, Pestello noted, SLU’s newest graduates being the change they wanted to see in
the world meant living out the scholarly tradition and passion for change that their
time on SLU’s campus fostered.
“Graduates, as I describe our mascot, a deeply symbolic creature by nature, it is
clear that the Billiken looks like all of us,” Pestello said. Such a resemblance,
SLU’s president continued, comes with an unexpected, but significant responsibility.
“For many people, imagining that they share features with the Billiken may be unnerving.
However, when we believe we resemble a symbol of ‘the way things ought to be,’ we
being to believe that we have the power to make things the way they ought to be –
to make the world the way it ought to be.”
Commencement concluded with the University’s recognition of each college and school’s
graduates and a benediction by Wilson. Following the ceremony, the University’s newest
alumni gathered with friends and family outside Chaifetz Arena or grabbed snapshots
with faculty and Pestello as they celebrated the start of their new paths beyond SLU.