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'Resilient' Class of 2024 Celebrated at SLU Commencement Ceremony

by Joe Barker on 05/18/2024


For many of Saint Louis University’s newest alumni, the 2024 Spring Commencement was a chance to experience a proper graduation ceremony.

Four years ago, at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, high school graduation ceremonies were dramatically altered or canceled outright. Referred to numerous times throughout the ceremony as “resilient,” the Class of 2024 donned their caps and gowns and filed into Chaifetz Arena Saturday for Saint Louis University’s Spring Commencement

Actor and St. Louis native Jon Hamm delivers the address during Saint Louis University's Commencement on Saturday, May 18, 2024. Photo by Sarah Conroy.

Actor and St. Louis native Jon Hamm delivers the address during Saint Louis University's Commencement on Saturday, May 18, 2024. Photo by Sarah Conroy. 

“It is an honor to be here with you today,” said Saint Louis University President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D. “I know that many of you undergraduates who joined us in the fall of 2020 did not have a high school graduation ceremony. I am confident that this week has been filled with celebrations that you will treasure. Savor this moment.”

St. Louis native and Emmy-award-winning actor Jon Hamm acknowledged the awkwardness of the pandemic-era graduations and congratulated the nearly 1,600 students packed into Chaifetz Arena on their ability to thrive despite the obstacles. 

“Your resilience in the face of continued discomfort and distraction is impressive,” Hamm said.

Hamm joked that he was an odd choice to serve as commencement speaker at SLU. He noted that he is not an alum, having attended the University of Missouri, and has only a “tenuous” idea of what a Billiken is. He said he jumped at the offer to deliver the address because it came with an honorary degree, but as time drew closer, he wasn’t sure what his message would be.

Eventually, he found it. 

“It hit me — I figured it out,” he said. “I’m not here to deliver some didactic message about the wonder of education and why SLU is the best of the best and if you all follow these three simple rules, you too can pay off your debts by your mid-thirties. I’m not here for that, I’m here because I am a member of this community. And as such, I have insight and wisdom to offer, and maybe even some jokes.”

Hamm said that his membership in communities shaped him as a person. Initially, it was his St. Louis community — the one that “nurtured me and provided a place to play and grow and wonder and learn.” Watching the local sports teams allowed him to come together with others, cheer, and celebrate. Later, his communities grew beyond his hometown.

While at Mizzou, Hamm began his foray into acting. He moved to Los Angeles and fell in with other actors — other people trying to live out their dreams.

“To become one in a million, actually close to one in 15 million, attempting to wrestle that ridiculous probability into something attainable,” he said. “I did it by finding my communities. Whether it was the community formed in the comedy clubs like Largo and M-Bar where for 5 bucks, I could sit in the back and laugh along with like-minded idiots, or the community of waiters and bartenders and restaurant people that I was a member of for a solid decade.”

Hamm encouraged the Class of 2024 to find their communities and, importantly, not seek out only like-minded people. 

“Finding the common ground in seemingly uncommon thoughts and ideas reminds us that we are all part of a much larger community than we even thought,” he said. “We all have far more in common than we think. We all, at the end of the day, want to do something fulfilling with our lives and find people who will love us through the hard times and the good. These things, these ideas, cut across all kinds of communities. These things unite us. These are the things that we want to explore, and tend to, and celebrate.”

Hamm encouraged the graduates to embrace failure. Failure, he said, is how we ultimately succeed. 

“Every bad audition, every double shift, every setback in my life has moved me forward, made me better, and brought me, ultimately, here,” he said. “Imparting to you that wisdom, I think I figured out, is why I am here.”

Hamm closed his remarks by reminding the graduates that they are now part of a shared community. 

“Be proud sons and daughters of St Louis,” he said. “Be proud of where you’re from, knowing that it made you. Be at peace with where you are, knowing it's transitory and is leading to something else on the path, but most importantly, be excited for where you’re going — the future is endless, it is ripe with possibility, and it is all yours to make of what you wish. With that, welcome to the community.”

Graduates take a selfie as the confetti falls after Commencement on May 18, 2024. Photo by Sarah Conroy. Launch SlideshowGraduates take a selfie as the confetti falls after Commencement on May 18, 2024. Photo by Sarah Conroy.

While Hamm advocated for finding communities, student speaker Sky Carroll, said her fellow classmates should also find a purpose.

“I challenge you to remember that you will always be part of something bigger than yourself because you were part of this class and this university,” Carroll said. “Finding passions and purposes beyond SLU might take time, it might not. And that’s okay. I encourage you to take a moment to rest in the coming days – you did the work, you made it here. Take a moment to rest and reminisce. Remember these stories of courage, compassion, and resilience. The future can be scary, but it is so exciting and so bright. I have no doubt that we will all continue to grow as we love fiercely, live fearlessly, and learn for always. We’ll all be loving, living, and learning right alongside one another.”

Carroll, a student graduating from the College of Arts and Sciences, majored in communication and political science. She is a Presidential Scholar who has received several campus honors, including the Office of Alumni Engagement’s Spirit of the Billiken Award. Like the other speakers, she remembered the dark times of the pandemic.

“I am here to remind us that we are more than that,” she said. “We are more than our darkest fears. More than our seemingly insurmountable failures. We are more than a single story. You are more than a single story. We are stories of courage, of compassion, and of resilience. It’s truly impossible to encapsulate just how extraordinary the class of 2024 is.

Carroll said her fellow students faced challenges from day one with bravery. 

“We were courageous when many of us left the homes we knew to come to a campus where we knew no one – in the middle of a pandemic. When we took the next step in our research. When we felt called to make SLU’s mental healthcare fit the needs of its students,” Carroll said. “We have constantly pushed one another outside of our comfort zones and to be the best versions of ourselves. I have no doubt that this courage will continue after today.”

During his remarks, Pestello noted that the students didn’t just survive the pandemic era of life at SLU, they thrived. 

“You are a generation of unprecedented optimism, creativity and resilience,” he said. “Over the last several years, you rose to the demand of unprecedented challenges. I have seen the depths of your work ethic and the breadth of your compassion.”

Pestello encouraged the grads to savor the day. 

“I want you to embrace the joy of this moment,” he 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 set the world on fire.”

The SLU ceremony kicked off with the traditional carrying of the University mace. This year, the mace bearer was Michael Barber, S.J. Barber came to SLU in 1985 and is a professor of philosophy and former dean of SLU’s College of Philosophy and Letters and the College of Arts and Sciences. A noted scholar, he has written eight books and more than 100 articles in the general area of phenomenology and the social world.

The ceremony closed with a moment that has become a tradition during Pestello’s time as president. After the degrees were conferred and the students had officially become graduates, Pestello took to the stage one last time to address the crowd.

Pestello noted that the grads were now part of the Billiken family forever, and confetti streamed down from the Chaifetz Arena rafters.

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.