2011 TC Pressroom
Teachers College, Columbia University
Teachers College Columbia University

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Extraordinary People with Plans to Change the World

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Commencement

Graduates show their excitement at the commencement ceremony

Fuhrman at Commencement

President Susan Fuhrman speaks to the graduates of Teachers College, Columbia University.

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2007 Graduates are "Dedicated, Idealistic, Talented and Diverse"

"It is customary at these times to exhort graduates to pursue their dreams," TC President Susan Fuhrman told audiences at the College's convocation ceremonies, held May 15th and 16th.  "At Teachers College, though, I think it's accurate to say that our students leave here as the potential fulfillment of all our dreams. TC's mission is to help achieve excellence and equity in education, a challenge that has never been more present or relevant than it is right now -- and you, our graduates, are the people who, on behalf of all of us, are taking up that challenge for the future."

The achievements of the graduates, and the resulting obligation to grapple with the most pressing problems facing society, was the theme that united the three ceremonies for the 1,902 master's degree candidates and 232 doctoral graduates who massed in Riverside Church with their families, friends, significant others, professors and TC administration and staff.

"Everything learned at Teachers College and before is in effect on loan in contingency," said Lee Shulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, who received the Teachers College Medal for Distinguished Service at the first master's degree ceremony on Tuesday afternoon.  "It is only ours if, as true masters, we pass it on, give it away, transmit and transform it for others." [read full speech]

Medalist Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and former head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, challenged the graduates "to keep open the window of opportunity, to lift up the next generation, and to urge them on to greatness -- through your work in the classroom, through mentoring, through advancing public policy and research, leading schools, serving your communities -- wherever your roles as educators can make a difference. Your talents -- and your commitment -- are essential to the success of all young people in this country, of our nation itself, and the world." [read full speech]

And medalist Thomas Sobol, TC Professor Emeritus and former New York State Commissioner of Education, told doctoral graduates on Wednesday afternoon that "becoming moral, in my view, is the opposite of restraint and detachment. It requires passionate engagement with other humans, stepping in to all of life's confusion and heartbreak and messiness, and losing one's self in something larger than one's self before the self can be defined.

"You are all on the way to becoming moral in this sense," Sobol added. "I urge you not to hold back from commitment." [read full speech]

The student speakers, too, suggested that it was up to the graduates to make the most of what they have learned.  

"Our degrees will provide us with valuable opportunities, but the value of our education is going to determine what we create with those opportunities," said Michael Feyen, the student speaker at the early master's convocation, who was receiving his degree in Arts and Humanities. [read full speech]

And Yasmin Helou, a candidate for a Master's of Education in Supervision in Special Educatino who spoke at the second master's degree convocation, reminded her fellow graduates of the writer George Eliot's exhortation that "it is never too late to be what you might have been." [read full speech]

The convocation format had some new twists this year, most notably the decision to read the names of all the graduating master's students and to honor only one medalist at each ceremony. Other elements remained unchanged, creating the usual mix of solemn grandeur and cheerful chaos: the glad, commanding organ chords that seemed to shake the floor; the graduates' families and friends filling the rear seats of the Riverside Church nave, then roosting in the aisles near the front of the church to snap photos of their graduates; the relatives holding small children, wide-eyed or sleepy; and of course, the students themselves, in a sea of light blue gowns and mortar boards, the latter adorned here and there with various messaging -- a map of Africa in one instance, the words "Need a job" in another. And as the 2,000 plus names were read over the course of the three days -- all, heroically, by Donald Martin, Associate Dean of Enrollment and Student Services -- private cheering sections scattered about the church erupted in whoops of approval.

"It's a particular thrill for me to be here today and participate in the hooding of our doctoral students, because when I received my degree at Teachers College, we didn't have a hooding ceremony," said Fuhrman, who was presiding over her first convocation. "And I've always thought that hooding was a particularly powerful image of joining the full-fledged ranks of academia.

"It's also a joy to me to see the number of children in evidence here today.  Had we had a hooding ceremony, I would have had my eight, five and one year old sons present.  I know what its' like to through courses, research assistantships and a dissertation with young children and I salute you all."

At each of the two master's degree ceremonies, Fuhrman shared stories about two of the graduating students. At the earlier ceremony, she spoke about Zhiyong Chen, who received his master's from the Department of Curriculum and Teaching, and Alicia Murphy, who received her Ed.M from the Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology. Chen, a brilliant student from China's Sichuan Province, had suffered a kidney ailment so severe prior to coming to TC that at one point he was bed-ridden for a period of five years. Yet he not only ended up coming to the College, but received top grades and missed only class during his two years here. He perservered, Fuhrman said, because of his desire to know more about American education and its focus on creativity, innovation and critical thinking -- tools emphasized at TC. Chen is returning to China in June to work with American students who study in China through the U.S. State Department.

Murphy came to TC to work with people "in the most difficult life circumstances -- the ones that many other people don't really know exist."   During her field work in a tough middle school in Brooklyn, she worked with a "quintessential bad kid" named James and succeeded in connecting with him because she saw past the protective front he presented of the "tough thug rapper."  When she told him she was leaving, he at first acted out angrily -- but the last day he told her he was angry because he was going to miss her.  Murphy, who completed her coursework during the winter, currently is working as a substance abuse counselor in a methadone clinic in South Carolina.

At the second master's degree ceremony, Fuhrman highlighted the experiences of Leigh Graham, who was receiving her master's degree in international education development, and Jill Pakulski, a master's of science candidate in nutrition education.

As a result of teaching Muslim students at a Catholic school in Virginia, Graham had gone on to study Muslim-Christian relations, travel to Egypt and study Arabic. At TC, she created and won funding for a project to tutor young Muslim girls at the Massid a-Noor Mosque in the Bronx, and this summer she will travel to the Sudan to study women's education there.  

Pakulski, who describes herself as a dietitian by training but a performer by birth, has developed a performance character called "Jumping Jacks with Jill" who combines exercise with nutrition education. Begun as a street performance, Jumping Jacks with Jill has been signed to a commercial label and is now a frequent presence at conferences, schools and hospitals. 

At the doctoral ceremony, where the focus was more on research, Fuhrman read a sampling of dissertation titles that ranged from "An Evaluation of a Class Web Site Tool to Increase Potential Involvement in Student Academic Life" to "The Effects of Tai Chi Chuan and Chi Kung on Autonomic Modulation," to "How Adults Learn to Transition from the Corporate Sector to the Entrepreneurial Sector."

She also shared the stories of Brenda Johnson, who earned her Ph.D. in Social-Organizational Psychology, and Linda Wine, who received a doctorate in Applied Linguistics.

Johnson, a white woman from British Columbia, wrote her dissertation on the "principle implementation gap" -- the disparity between the statements of many white people that they believe in and support racial equality, and their unwillingness to support policies that would ensure and safeguard that equality in the workplace. Her inspiration for that topic reaches back to her childhood, when she lived near a reservation of indigenous people and played baseball with the girls there. "I was aware early on of entrenched inequality that didn't fully make sense to me," Fuhrman quoted her as saying, "I was struck both by how much we had in common and how different we were."

Wine, who also serves as Director of TC's certificate program in TESOL (Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Langauges), wrote about the dynamics of parent-teacher conferences in American public schools, audio-taping and transcribing 27 conferences between a first-grade teacher in the New York metropolitan area and the parents of the children in her class. She came away with a portrait of a skilled teacher, a supportive principal and well-intentioned parents doing their best under less-than-ideal conditions: six minute conferences held on a first-come, first-serve basis with no privacy. Wine is hopeful that her dissertation could be used to help train parents and teachers to conduct more effective conferences -- and to remind schools to create a better climate for holding them.

"I could go on, but you get the idea," Fuhrman said after relating all of these stories. "Our graduates are extraordinary people -- dedicated, idealistic, talented and diverse. They have plans to change the world, and no doubt they will succeed." 

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