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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Convocation Ceremonies Celebrate New Beginnings and Honor Contributions to Education

The convocation and commencement ceremonies took place on rainy, dreary days this year. Yet, that did not dampen the spirits of the graduates and their families who had come from places as far as Argentina and as close as the upper west side of Manhattan.

The master's convocation on Tuesday, May 18, was the initial Teachers College celebration. The first TC medalist to arrive at the robing room at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine was Professor Emeritus Leonard Blackman. A tall man with a pleasant demeanor, Blackman quietly conversed with trustees and other members of President Arthur Levine's party that would march to the stage together for the master's convocation ceremony.
Amid the hustle and bustle of backstage preparations, student speaker Kelly Aramaki, sat off to the side silently rehearsing his speech and sipping bottled water. He seemed just a little nervous.

As the organ filled The Cathedral with strains of Elgar's Imperial March, master's graduates began their procession up the center aisle. Before they were even visible to those in the front rows, cheers went up from the packed seats of families and friends. Camera flashes, reminiscent of lightning, announced their approach. Floral bouquets and balloons dotted the sea of pale blue caps and gowns.

When they had all reached their seats, a great cheer came up from the group as the president's party approached the stage. The President and Dean Karen Zumwalt, the student speaker, the three medalists, Rudolph Crew, Blackman and Ruth Simmons, with their faculty escorts, trustee co-chairs Enid Morse and Antonia Grumbach, University Chaplain Jewelnel Davis, and Rabbi Steven Brown arrived on stage and the proceedings commenced.

President Levine explained the significance of the Teachers College Medal for Distinguished Service, the highest honor conferred by the College that is given to a handful of people who have made important contributions to education. Dean Zumwalt moderated the presentation of the medals, and citations were read by the escorts.

In his opening remarks, the President noted that Blackman "has been here for the College whenever we have needed him. Len Blackman," Levine said, "is the man I want to be when I grow up."

The Dean called Blackman to receive his medal first. "Your life has been devoted to helping children with disabilities to ‘reach beyond the difference'," read Blackman's escort, Professor Judith Berman Brandenburg. "You contributed to extensive research projects and publications…you demonstrated your skill at defusing potentially difficult situations and your commitment to taking care of business with an eye to the College's best interests." She continued, "You attracted considerable grant support….It is thanks to your efforts and involvement in the (Research and Demonstration) Center that a landmark event occurred at the College-the conception of and acquisition of the first $2 million for the building of Thorndike Hall."

In his acceptance speech, Blackman told the congregation that receiving the award "means more to me than I could ever adequately express." He went on to explain how the College was more than just a place where he worked, it was an important part of his family life. Several members of his family, who were present to see him honored, are alumni of Teachers College, including his wife, some of his children, and some of his children's spouses. He told the graduates to start their careers knowing that the theory and skills they have learned will continue to assure and reassure them that anything is possible.

In reading Rudolph Crew's citation, Professor Gary Griffin said, "When you were appointed Chancellor of the New York City Board of Education in 1995, you pledged to devote all of your energy to address the needs of the City's children and youth. That commitment has allowed you to navigate the often difficult course between enhancing the educational opportunity of New York City's 1.1 million school children and the expectations of the City's political leaders." In Crew's remarks to the graduates, he said, "This is a wonderful commitment you have made and a wonderful career. Your first job is less a function of what your discipline is than leaving children more confident of going from one year into the next, from one task into the next. There will be moments when nothing but sheer passion and wit will help you get through."

Professor Celia Genishi read the citation given to Ruth Simmons, president of Smith College. "You had a natural interest in learning that drew the attention of several of your teachers who nurtured your belief in yourself," Genishi read. "When you became president of Smith College, you were the first African-American person to head a prestigious women's college, and you were one of only a small number of black female presidents. In addressing the students at your inauguration, you credited your own teachers, who were there in the audience, with giving you the potential to think, to act and to lead." She added, "Smith students have called you ‘an inspiration' and ‘a role model.' You encourage them by your own achievements, through your words, and through your belief in them-the same way your teachers encouraged you."

Simmons, in her acceptance speech, said, "It is really my teachers who should receive recognition and credit for anything of note that I have accomplished, for I am what they made me." She went on to describe specific teachers who encouraged her along the way, including a high school teacher who not only insisted Simmons would go on to college, but found one for her and "harrassed them until they gave me a full scholarship."

In his closing remarks, Levine highlighted some of the graduating students who have been involved in extraordinary circumstances or who would be going on to interesting new experiences. (A story on some of the students mentioned in Levine's speeches will appear in the June issue of Inside TC.) He also noted the retirement of Professor Gary Griffin, saying, "More than anything, he has shared with us his knowledge of teaching and his commitment to making a difference in education."

Student speaker Kelly Aramaki quoted a five-year-old poet who wrote, "Here is the deep water." Using the experience of learning to swim as a metaphor, Aramaki explained to his fellow graduates that now is the time they will all be going to the deep end of the pool to use all the skills and confidence they have learned in the shallow end. He also discussed his philosophy of creating a sense of community among school children through inclusion programs. To everyone's surprise and delight he summarized his message in song, with a rendition of his own version of the theme song from Cheers, a popular television sitcom. When he got to the chorus, the entire audience joined in.

Another rainy morning marked the abbreviated commencement ceremony at the Columbia campus, on May 19, where many were excited to see "The Greatest," Mohammed Ali receive an honorary degree. The TC doctoral convocation followed at Riverside Church later that afternoon. A packed chapel of friends and relatives watched as close to 200 new Ph.D.s and Ed.D.s were hooded by the Dean. Enthusiastic shouts of congratulations came from friends and family members of some graduates as the Dean placed a hood on their shoulders. One woman, Loriene Hatsumi Honda, received a short violin serenade from the balcony. Joaquin Flores, whose experiences were highlighted in the president's remarks, received a standing ovation from the entire congregation as did the final graduate to be hooded. As a humorous end to the program, the recessional song was "Don't Know Much About History."previous page