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Class of 2023 Celebrated at Spring Commencement

by Joe Barker on 05/20/2023


Saint Louis University celebrated the Class of 2023 on Saturday morning at the Spring Commencement ceremony. 

Family members, friends and loved ones filled the seats at Chaifetz Arena to salute and congratulate the newest group of students who can now call themselves alums of Saint Louis University. A total crowd of 4,533 saluted the more than 2,900 students who graduated from SLU this spring.

An overhead shot of students filing in for the Spring 2023 commencement ceremony.

Graduates file into Chaifetz Arena on Saturday, May 20, for the 2023 Spring Commencement ceremony. Photo by Sarah Conroy.

“On this day, you join two centuries of Billiken graduates,” SLU President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D., said. “We are proud of you and everything you have achieved.”

Vice President for Mission and Identity David Suwalsky, S.J., Ph.D., praised the graduates for their devotion and commitment on their way to commencement. 

“Over the course of their time here, they have done much to earn their robes and tassels,” Suwalsky said. “They have plowed through books, composed many papers, sought out their professors, studied for their exams and struggled with the challenges these past several years that have been presented to them, and to all of us, actually. Our graduates have been a blessing to us. They have helped to shape our university and our world for the better.”

Pestello said the graduates showed they are emblematic of what it means to be a Billiken. A Billiken has a quest for understanding, is engaged, authentic and has an “unquenchable thirst for truth and our desire to explore life’s vital questions.” Those characteristics, he said, describe perfectly the Class of 2023.

“I want you to embrace the joy of this moment,” Pestello said. “Be proud of the hard work you put in, and the struggles you endured. Have faith in the wisdom you have earned, inside and outside of the classroom. Know that you will be a force for good — that you will, indeed, set the world on fire.”

Student speaker Zahva Naeem, graduating from our College of Arts and Sciences, reminded her fellow graduates about the shared strangeness of their college experience. She talked about how students were just getting comfortable on campus when the Covid pandemic altered things and made it difficult to hold onto the community she and others had built on campus. 

A psychology and biology major, Naeem was involved in a lot at SLU outside of the classroom. She said everyone worked to put SLU back together after the pandemic fractured the University. 

“Despite it all, we came together as a community, as OneSLU, and we fought to support and take care of one another,” Naeem said. “We put aside our differences to ensure that we could find a way back to our campus and to our friends. We came together to honor those who passed on and found ways to support one another in times of great difficulty. We worked to rebuild our student organizations from the ground up and cultivated a campus full of comfort, excitement, and joy once more.”

Naeem encouraged her fellow graduates to go to the world and make a difference.

“I challenge you to embrace who you are,” she said. “I challenge you to embrace the experiences that have led you to this very moment. I challenge you to embrace the idea that you are worthy, you have value, and you deserve happiness. I challenge you to honor those who came before us, those who fought for our right to be here, those who have loved and supported us throughout our journey, and those who cannot be with us. I challenge you to be proud to be a Billiken, to be a person who serves others and seeks to better our world. Tomorrow is for rest. Today is for celebrating everything we have accomplished. But the future? The future is for becoming the best version of you. So live kindly, love freely, and learn adamantly.”

Student speaker Zahva Naeem and commencement speaker John O'Leary share a moment during the Spring 2023 Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 20. Photo by Sarah Conroy. Launch SlideshowStudent speaker Zahva Naeem and commencement speaker John O'Leary share a moment during the Spring 2023 Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 20. Photo by Sarah Conroy.

New York Times best-selling author and internationally recognized motivational speaker John O’Leary (CSB ’99) delivered the commencement address. He shared three lessons he wanted the graduates to take with them as they leave SLU. 

“Takeaway No. 1 your life is a precious, priceless gift,” he said. “Let it be used for good." 

O’Leary explained that when he was 9 years old, he was so severely burned in an accident that doctors gave him less than a 1% chance of survival. After he survived, he said his main goal was to blend in and not stand out. He didn’t share his story with others.

Eventually, his parents wrote a book, and his story became public. He was then offered a chance to speak about his life. Despite his apprehensions, he said yes and has since delivered 2,600 speeches worldwide. 

"The second is about allowing your life to reflect the power of a God who made you perfectly, to be loved in a marketplace that is desperate for it,” he said. 

O’Leary said he wasn’t talking about romantic love, but unconditional love. He shared the story of his father telling him how much he was loved following his accident. Lying in his hospital bed expecting to be in trouble for playing with fire, O’Leary said he was surprised when his dad told him he loved him and there was nothing he could do about it.

That love built to his third lesson for graduates. 

"Become defiant hope — that's the third lesson," he said. "Become defiant hope in a world that is busted and broken and cynical, and negative. ... You Billikens, you show them what defiant hope looks like."

He talked about how he thought his life was over following his accident. He was wrong. O'Leary pointed out that he went to college, met his wife and started a family — all things he didn't think were possible.

He also shared a story about how his mom set him up with piano lessons as a child. Despite his injuries to his hands from the fire, he learned to play the piano. He showed off his skills by playing the Coldplay song “The Scientist” for graduates to close out a speech and received a standing ovation. 

In addition to delivering the commencement address, O’Leary joined former St. Louis Alderwoman Marlene Davis and veteran actress and SLU alumna Marianne Muellerleile in receiving honorary doctoral degrees from Saint Louis University. 

Davis served as the alderwoman of the City’s 19th Ward for 16 years before her retirement in April. In that role, Davis helped facilitate the transformation of SLU’s Midtown neighborhood, including JeffVanderLou and the Grand Center Arts District. During her tenure on the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, once-vacant buildings have become home to new housing developments, entertainment and shopping venues, and dozens of new restaurants and breweries.

A St. Louis native, Marianne Muellerleile (A&S ’71) is one of Hollywood’s most sought-after character actresses. Over a 50-year career, she has appeared in more than 180 television series, including the NBC daytime soap opera “Passions,” and more than 100 national television commercials, including Geico’s “Aunt Infestation” ad. 

An archive of the commencement ceremony can be found at Saint Louis University’s YouTube page.

About Saint Louis University

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 more than 15,200 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.