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Graduation

TC graduates cheer at the graduation ceremony.

"Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I've got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."

With those words of George Bernard Shaw, Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA and one of 10 people awarded the TC Medal for Distinguished Service at two Teachers College masters degree ceremonies on May 16, captured the spirit of TC's graduation ceremonies.

Spanning four ceremonies over two days - the general Columbia University commencement and doctoral degree ceremonies were held on May 17 - this year's graduation ceremonies were marked not only by stirring remarks by U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel, former Governor of New Jersey Thomas Kean and former Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin, who was awarded the Cleveland A. Dodge Medal for Distinguished Service to Education, but also by a farewell of another sort: this was Teachers College President Arthur Levine's last year at the podium. Levine, who is leaving TC after 12 years as president, was honored by a surprise visit from Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, who awarded him the TC Medal for Distinguished Service. In addition, Levine acknowledged two TC professors who are retiring this year-'"Thomas Sobol, Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice, and D. Kim Reid, Professor of Education and coordinator of programs in Learning Dis/Abilities.

Yet the ceremonies' ultimate focus was the nearly 2,000 newly minted graduates. With 1,722 masters candidates and 230 doctoral candidates, as well as the students and the family, friends and faculty who helped them on their path to graduation, Riverside Church overflowed. (The general Columbia Commencement dwarfed even those numbers, with more than 30,000 people in attendance on the Morningside Campus's South Lawn). Each masters ceremony also included remarks by a student speaker: Elsa Chen, from Bilingual/Bicultural Education program, and Sarah Esposito, of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program. For more on the student speakers, see oage 20.

After each ceremony, students burst out of the church to celebrate with their families and friends on Riverside Drive. At the Columbia University commencement, students set off exploding party favors and crowds of TC students did "the Wave."

THE MEDALISTS

The Teachers College Medal for Distinguished Service - "our highest honor, with the exception of the title Professor," said Levine - went this year to Hesselbein, who is President and CEO of Leader to Leader, which advises companies, non-profits and public organizations on good governance practices; U.S. Congressman Charles Rangel; Former New Jersey Governor and 9/11 Commission Chair Thomas Kean; neurosurgeon and philanthropist Benjamin Carson; William G. Bowen, President of the Andrew Mellon Foundation and former President of Princeton University; K. Patricia Cross, Professor Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley; David Halberstam, journalist, author and social historian; Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and sex therapist and talk show personality "Dr. Ruth" Westheimer. The Cleveland E. Dodge Medal for Distinguished Service to Education was presented to Robert Rubin, Chairman of the Executive Committee, Citigroup Inc. and Secretary of the Treasury under President Clinton.

"The only difference between the  -'hood' and becoming a member of Congress is education," said Rangel, a high school dropout who completed his education only after returning from the Korean War and realizing that, as a young man of color, he stood little chance of achieving success. "You have the responsibility of joining with your fellow educators to make sure your great country can be all that it can be."

Carson, who became world-famous for leading a 22-hour operation that separated twins conjoined at the head, also spoke of his rise from poverty and how it has inspired him to seek more than mere professional success.

"As my career unfolded, it became clear to me that it was only a platform," said Carson, whose Carson Scholars Fund has supported thousands of young students. "My wife and I would go into schools and see all these trophies. The quarterback is the big man on campus, but what does the honors student get, beyond a pat on the back?

"So we started the scholarship fund-'"and let me tell you, if you give $1,000 to a fourth grader, he becomes a big man on campus. But more than that, if you put a scholarship student in a classroom, the GPA goes up for the entire class."

Kean, who also served as President of Drew University, said he was "deeply honored to receive an award from this institution - more than I would be by any other."

A TC alumnus and trustee emeritus, Kean said that, as a boy, he had been dyslexic and developed a stutter, with the result that lot of adults simply gave up on him. "It was teachers who saw something in me that was redeemable - who saw that I could compete and have a dream of being what I wanted to be," he said. "Teachers have the power to change the world." To loud applause he added, "And it is the responsibility of those in government simply to support your work in any way they can possibly do it."

The diminutive Dr. Ruth quipped, "I taught kindergarten because I knew the children could see me." She said, "Nothing gives me greater pleasure than being a teacher - to a make the world a better place, which is what all teachers strive for." The TC alumna vowed to "keep on teaching beside you, whether it is about the family or about that other subject that I teach about from time to time."

Bowen said he was humbled to be honored by Teachers College. "The purposes TC exists to serve have never been more important than they are today," he said.

Halberstam, author of The Best and the Brightest, on the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations and the Vietnam War, and The Powers That Be, on the evolution of television, said that he was both the son and father of second-grade teachers. "You may be honoring the wrong family member," he joked. He described himself as the product of public schools and said he learned first-hand the difference a good teacher could make. When he was struggling in school, he said, teachers "had more faith in me than I had in myself."

Cross, a trail-blazer in the community college movement and adult education, called education "a no-risk high-return investment," citing the sevenfold return on the dollars invested in the G.I. Bill. "It is even more critical today," she said.  "Never has knowledge and its application been so central to progress...The consequences of mis-education, poor education or no education  are terribly serious for the individual, the nation and our planet."

Hrabowski said he was especially proud to be honored by Teachers College because he remembered its distinguished role as a destination for students of color -'"particularly students from the south who couldn't be educated in their home states before the Civil Rights movement made headway. He said his parents, who were both teachers, showed him that "the fundamental purpose of education is to dream of what is possible and then to give people the tools to make it possible."

When his mother was dying, Hrabowski said, he asked her what she valued most about her life. Her answer:  "My lust for learning, my sense of the difference between right and wrong. I gave [the students] all of that and for that I will live. Teachers touch eternity through their students."

At the doctoral ceremony, Rubin stressed that a quality public education for all Americans is absolutely essential, since it is the one characteristic that the most successful countries share. "China, India and the other rapidly growing emerging-market countries share an intentional focus on equipping all of their people to function effectively in the mainstream economy," he said, adding that the center of that focus is public education, especially for the poor in their societies.

Rubin noted that most people who achieve success in life credit the influence of one or more good teachers. "As you know better than I, far too many schools are not providing the education that our students need. That is a great threat to the future of our country," he said. "Creative thinking and an open-minded mindset are critical, and - I know from my own experience in Washington - are not always welcome."

One medalist who had not been pre-announced was Arthur Levine. In his surprise appearance, Lee Bollinger lauded Levine, saying that both he and Teachers College exemplified Levine's oft-used phrase of Tikkun Olam-'"the Hebrew saying meaning "to repair the world."

Bollinger said that since the Supreme Court struck down school segregation, equity in education "is still a mountaintop we are struggling to climb.  Some may think we may never get there, but Arthur has always pushed us higher, asking, -'Why not?' often in outspoken and provocative ways."

Fittingly, as TC's doctoral students entered the processional, they were greeted by the ceremonial music from the movie "King Arthur."

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