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SLU Graduates Honored at Unique Commencement Ceremony

by Joe Barker on 05/24/2021

For the newest Saint Louis University graduates, the end of their time as students has been unique. 

University President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D. said the last 14 months has “been like no other in modern-day higher education.” The students were forced to adjust to a new world brought on by COVID-19. One final adjustment was a virtual commencement ceremony. 

After a week of live, in-person precommencement ceremonies, the University’s commencement ceremony was released online Sunday, May 23

“While I am excited we get to have our precommencement ceremonies in person this year, albeit in a reduced capacities, I really wish I could look out over a packed crowd of graduates and their families at Chaifetz Arena, and celebrate with you in person,” Provost Michael Lewis, Ph.D., said. “I feel like we’re getting close to being able to return to the normal, human, in-person, interactions we all crave. Today, for the University commencement, it still needs to be like this – virtually.”

Despite the absence of graduates, the ceremony had  the familiar beats of a pre-pandemic commencement ceremony. Dr. Michael Jones, Youth Pastor at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church, provided the invocation. Saint Louis University's alma mater, “Varsity Song,” was performed by the University’s Mastersingers.

Graduates Saluted

Following the song, Pestello addressed the graduates. In his remarks, he praised the December 2020 and May 2021 graduates for their ability to adapt and make it through.

“Some of you faced serious personal challenges during your time here,” he said. “Others may have struggled at points to make it through your academic program. But we are all here, together now. You made it! Congratulations!”

Pestello touched on the journey from incoming students to graduates.

“When you chose SLU, you had a sense that it would be a good fit for you,” Pestello said. “You entered with an academic profile that placed you in the top 10% of students in the country. Many of you, like me, were the first in your family to attend college.

“Regardless of your path, I am confident that you realize here at SLU, ethics and morals inform action, each person is valued, and integrity is vital. We dare to choose courage over comfort and justice over indifference.”

Pestello told the graduates they are among the best of their generation and he praised the students’ work ethic, compassion and advocacy. 

“You leave the SLU arches academically gifted, research oriented, empathetic and culturally aware,” he said. “You enter a world that needs daring leadership and contemplative action. You are prepared to share joy with those who are low, direction with those who are lost, and hope with those who live in fear.”

Jori Brewer, from Doisy College of Health Sciences, was the student speaker at the event. Brewer, who studied occupational therapy, also highlighted the unique experience the graduates navigated.

Brewer talked about the challenges of coming back to SLU after the summer of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic was still raging and protests were mounting nationwide after the killings of Black men and women around the country. 

“I thought to myself, how are we supposed to go back to school when everyone and everything around us seems to be falling apart?” Brewer asked. “It would take a community of people to make this school year seem anywhere close to normal. As I gathered my bags to come back, I was nervous, but I remembered what it meant to be a SLU student.

“As a Jesuit University, SLU has impacted the way I view the world. We are taught that in order to be an active member of society, you must seek to create change outside of yourself.”

Lessons Learned in a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic also was a theme of the main commencement speech. SLU alumnus Alexander Garza, M.D., the incident commander of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, joked that the SARS CoV-2, or COVID-19, is known by him as the “ruiner of my life.”

Garza praised the students, saying they succeeded “spectacularly in the classroom and in the community” under the dark cloud of COVID-19. 

“This past year has been one of the most memorable and challenging, and scary and depressing in the entire history of the world,” he said. ”The pandemic has been disorienting for the entire world and for you and for me.” 

Garza spoke about how strange the past year has been for him. He became the visible face of the pandemic doing countless interviews and press briefings. He said, as someone who values public health, the increased attention to the field has been rewarding. On the other hand, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on people’s lives. 

“I think of the tragedy that this pandemic has brought,” he said. “Not just on the persons that got COVID-19, but on their families, the nurses, the doctors, the therapists, the janitorial staff, food service, the chaplains and everyone else who came to work every day, in the dark hours, to take care of the sick, to hold their hands, to anoint the dying, to talk to the bereaved.”

Garza said the pandemic has taught several positive lessons. For example, families are nice to be around, it’s good to make individual sacrifices for the greater good, patience is a virtue and more. 

“There is no limit to love and compassion and dignity, '' he said. “We just have to open our hearts.”

Graduating during a pandemic has prepared the students for challenges that lie ahead, Garza said. Students are ready to adapt.

“You will be there when the next pandemic, or another complex, hairy, insurmountable, worldwide problem comes along and you will say, when they ask ‘Who shall we send’, and you will say ‘Here I am, send me,’” he said. “I have no doubt that you will be bold, that you will thirst to understand, that you will have compassion, and that you will use what you have learned here at Saint Louis University to seek out those experiences that will make you and the world a better place and live out that phrase ‘Higher Purpose, Greater Good.’”

2021 Honorary Degree Recipients

Garza was joined by four others in receiving honorary doctoral degrees this year. Brenda and Larry Thompson and Linda and Alan Vogt were recognized for their contributions to the University and beyond.

Brenda and Larry Thompson

Brenda and Larry Thompson were recognized with honorary degrees for their dedication to collecting, sharing and preserving African American works of art. Brenda is a SLU alumna, earning her doctorate in clinical psychology from the University in 1980. 

The noted art collectors donated 100 works of art celebrating African American culture and experience to the Georgia Museum of Art in 2012. They later funded an endowment to support a curatorial position at the museum that focuses on African American and African Diasporic art. 

Their generosity has extended to SLU as well. They have donated 55 pieces of artwork by African American artists to the Saint Louis University Museum of Art. They also recently established the Larry and Brenda Thompson Graduate Scholarship to support English, American studies or history students at the University who have an interest in art by African American artists. 

Linda and Alan Vogt

 Linda and Alan Vogt were honored for their longtime support of Billiken athletics and student-athletes at Saint Louis University. Alan is a 1969 graduate of SLU’s Richard A. Chaifetz School of Business. 

Over the past 25 years, the couple has made significant contributions that provide essential resources to all student-athletes at SLU, including academic support services, nutrition programs and campus life activities. In 2017, they received SLU’s Bauman Sportsmanship Award and were inducted into the Billiken Hall of Fame. 

In addition to their involvement with Saint Louis University and Billiken Athletics, the Vogts also are actively committed to the Lutheran Elementary School Association, Longmeadow Rescue Ranch of the Humane Society of Missouri, the Police Athletic League and Unity Lutheran School in East St. Louis. 

Pestello closed out the ceremony by encouraging everyone watching at home to celebrate. He reminded everyone they are now “members of the Billiken family forever.