Mark Peters | Photos by Robert Kozloff, Jean Lachat, and Joel Wintermantle
Before departing the University of Chicago, graduating students received a lesson on how to return.
In his June 11 address at the University’s 527th Convocation, Prof. David Nirenberg didn’t focus on coming back to campus, although he encouraged that. Instead, the medieval historian asked the 3,447 soon-to-be graduates to think about “a time of mind”—or the rare attention the University allows for thought and discovery. Drawing from Goliardic verse, Nietzsche, and David Foster Wallace, he encouraged graduates in the busy years ahead to return to the courses of thought they pursued at the University, reflecting on the traditional term alma mater, which translates as “nourishing mother.”
“All of us who remain behind hope that you will return early and often. But we hope even more that wherever you find yourself in the years to come, you will also find this mother and her peculiar time of mind within you—always there for you to step into, always ready to render the familiar strange, and provoke you to wonder,” said Nirenberg, dean of the Division of the Social Sciences and the Deborah R. and Edgar D. Jannotta Professor of Medieval History and Social Thought.
His address to an estimated 15,000 family, friends, and colleagues in the Main Quadrangle was part of the daylong Convocation celebration.
University President Robert J. Zimmer in his address told graduates as they celebrate to take satisfaction in their contribution to the continual renewal of the university. “You will be called upon to act, to speak, and to lead, and like so many graduates who have come before you, you will approach this challenge of leadership empowered by your University of Chicago education,” he said.
The Convocation ceremony was marked by waving UChicago hand fans and cups of water as temperatures climbed to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Family and friends crowded into seats under the broad trees of the Quadrangle to dodge the sun.
Martin and Heidi Welch of Nashville, Tenn. with their son Christopher, a first-year at UChicago, donned T-shirts not to stay cool, but celebrate the graduation of daughter JoAnn, a classical studies major and mathematics minor in the College. Their shirts read “JoAnn Gratulatio! Vade et prosperabitur” – or “Congratulations! Go forth and prosper.” Martin Welch described the day as bittersweet: proud of his graduating daughter, but sad to see her moving farther away to Seattle to teach math and attend graduate school.
As bagpipes marked the end of the University-wide ceremony, individual schools and divisions later awarded diplomas to graduates at sites around campus. The College ceremony continued the tradition of student speakers as Hannah Gitlin, Konje Machini, and Kristopher Pittard discussed what unites the Class of 2016, while noting how each classmate’s experience is unique.
“It’s easy to remember Cobb Hall as a pretty building, but its ivy-covered walls are far less important than all the tiny ways you’ve changed inside those walls,” Gitlin said.
Machini talked of building communities at UChicago and the opportunities ahead to redefine and expand them. Pittard ended his remarks also by looking to the future, seeing a duty among graduates to take what they learned and use it to help make a better world.
“It may be someone figuring out a way to solve world hunger. It might also be helping someone struggling with their identity. It could even be teaching in a classroom of fourth-graders or fourth-year College students,” Pittard said. “Those two groups are probably a lot more similar than we’d care to admit.”
During the morning ceremony, the University presented honorary degrees to Andrew M. Alper, former chairman of UChicago’s Board of Trustees; Frances H. Arnold, a founding figure in the field of molecular engineering in biological systems; and J. Patrick Olivelle, a scholar of Sanskrit and Pali literature and South Asian religions.
The ceremony included the awarding of the Benton Medal for Distinguished Public Service to Harvard University Professor James Anderson and the Jesse L. Rosenberger Medal for Outstanding Achievement in the Creative and Performing Arts to local artist Kerry James Marshall.
During the ceremonies held by the divisions and schools, faculty members and graduate students were recognized for excellence in teaching with the presentations of the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, the Faculty Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring, and the Wayne C. Booth Graduate Student Prizes for Excellence in Teaching.
Originally published on June 11, 2016.