A Call to Transform: Social Justice is the Theme at Convocation 2016 | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

A Call to Transform: Social Justice is the Theme at Convocation 2016

“You are dedicating your lives and careers to the pursuit of social justice, a TC tradition that literally goes back to our founder Grace Hoadley Dodge.”

“Think about that one teacher, one person who made a difference in your life. Could you be that person for others? Be an advocate! Be an inspiration! Be a voice!”
—Ayesha Rabadi (M.A., Early Childhood Education)

Setting the tone for TC’s 2016 Convocation exercises at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, President Susan Fuhrman emphasized the fundamental role of social justice in the TC experience and the importance of students working to make the world a better place as they move on to new lives beyond the College.

“For all the progress and landmark achievements we have made, America in 2016 is still confronted by the stubborn persistence of racism and growing inequities in education, health, and economic opportunity,” Fuhrman told graduates in four separate ceremonies – three for master’s degree candidates and one to hood those who had completed their doctorates -- held during the week of May 16th.

At the ceremonies, in which more than 2000 master’s and doctoral students from TC’s 10 different departments participated, Fuhrman highlighted the contributions of TC students who have exemplified the commitment to social justice, including Alison Désir (M.A., Counseling Psychology), who founded a running club where members of the local Harlem community can work together toward physical and mental health, and Ilya Lyashevsky (Ed.M., Cognitive Studies), who helped build a smart phone app designed to help the city’s homeless.

(Click here to read about all the students Fuhrman highlighted in her speeches. Click here to read about students and alumni who gave musical performances at Convocation. Click here to read about first-generation graduate students who were receiving their degrees. Click here to read about TC’s second annual Golden Anniversary brunch, for alumni who graduated 50 years ago or more. Click here for photos from all of our ceremonies on Flickr.)

“You have the power to transform the learning and caring environments where you work,” Fuhrman said. “You have the power to advocate for enlightened public policy. You have the power to promote educational opportunity and overall well-being for everyone, including our most marginalized and vulnerable fellow human beings.”

Four speakers, each of whom received TC’s Medal for Distinguished Service, echoed Fuhrman’s call to action. (On the eve of graduation, at a special medalists’ dinner, Jack Hyland, Co-Chair of Teachers College’s Board of Trustees, received TC’s Cleveland E. Dodge Medal for Distinguished Service to Education – the highest honor the College bestows to a non-educator. Click here to read the story.) At Monday’s Masters Convocation, for students in TC’s departments of Arts & Humanities and Curriculum & Teaching, Sandra Jackson-Dumont, the Frederick P. and Sandra P. Rose Chairman of Education at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, began by quoting a 1963 essay in which, decrying the plight of black children schooled in a country that denies their contributions to civilization, the writer James Baldwin told educators “who deal with the minds and hearts of young people” that they must be prepared to “go for broke” to correct “so many generations of bad faith and cruelty.”


Noting that “these words could have been uttered yesterday,” Jackson-Dumont urged the graduates to “think about what you’ll do to eliminate the possibility of this text ringing true 50 years from now.”

The following morning, Thomas Frieden, Director of the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and former Commissioner of the New York City Health Department, told  graduates in the departments of Biobehavioral Sciences, Counseling & Clinical Psychology, Education Policy & Social Analysis, and Health & Behavior Studies that the keys to engineering positive change are luck and a combination of readiness and hard work.

Frieden, a voice for rational response to the Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks and the leader of successful efforts to prevent the spread of tuberculosis, cited both his own good fortune – such as working under New York City’s Michael Bloomberg, “the first mayor to have a school of public health named after him” – and occasional bad, such as the time during the 1970s when he accidentally deleted a hard drive containing all the health data of a small nation. It was a vivid reminder, he said, that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

As for readiness and hard work, Frieden advised his listeners to “have within yourself the ability, humility and focus to take advantage of an opportunity.” Ultimately, he said, “each of you have a responsibility to use what you’ve learned in your education to identify opportunities for progress and to use what you know to advance service.”

At Tuesday afternoon’s master’s ceremony for students in the departments of Human Development, International & Transcultural Studies, Math, Science & Technology and Organization & Leadership, Kris D. Gutiérrez, Professor of Language, Literacy & Culture at the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Education, told graduates the world is full of possibilities for those willing to develop “a new social imagination.” Gutiérrez told the story of being driven to the New Orleans airport after the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), of which she was president at the time. Most of the world saw the driver, Keith Plessy, merely as the bellman of the New Orleans Marriott.  Yet Gutiérrez learned on the drive that he was actually a descendant of Homer Plessy, the New Orleans man who had been at the center of Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court ruling making “separate but equal” the law of the land (until it was overturned by the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954). Keith Plessy not only knew a great deal about his family history, but had teamed up with the great-great-granddaughter of the judge who had upheld the ruling to found a new civil rights organization called the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation, which teaches about the Plessy decision and its continuing relevance in American life.

Gutiérrez cited Keith Plessy as a role model for the “so-called everyday man” who seeks to become a “historical actor” who can change the world.

“You have the opportunity to do something ordinary in your work, and to turn that into something extraordinary,” she told the graduates. “The question is: What kind of historical actors do you want to become?”

Susan T. Fiske, Eugene Higgins Professor of Pscyhology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, told graduates at Wednesday’s doctoral hooding ceremony not to allow failure to limit what they can accomplish. Known as one of the world’s leading social psychologists, Fiske shared with students that the failures she encountered early in her career became transformative moments that changed the course of her life. She encouraged graduates to learn to embrace and “metabolize failure” and the inevitable obstacles one encounters in life.

“Why, in the 21st century with all of the knowledge we have, were my students struggling to graduate in four, five, and six years from college? Why did they not have the same experiences as I did as an undergraduate? Why did these significant inequities continue to exist?”
—Katherine Cho (M.A., Sociology & Education)

“Most people can deal with success,” Fiske said. “It’s how you handle failure that shows your real grit.”

Student speakers at each of the Master’s Convocation ceremonies exhorted graduates to make the most of opportunities to be an inspiration to others.

Ayesha Rabadi, speaking at Monday’s ceremony, urged her fellow graduates to “think about the power that we all have now and how we got to this moment.

“Think about that one teacher, one person who made a difference in your life,” said Rabadi, who was receiving her M.A. in Early Childhood Education (Dual Certification), and who carried TC’s banner. “Could you be that person for others?  Be an advocate! Be an inspiration! Be a voice!”

At Tuesday morning’s convocation, Katherine Cho, who was receiving her master’s degree in Sociology & Education, said that coming to TC was her response to just such an opportunity. A master’s degree was “not on my radar” when she moved to New York six years ago, said Cho said, but soon she found herself asking the question “Why?”

"At TC, I learned not only to navigate towards a more accurate position but learned the excitement of seeking out new stars."
—David Taliaferro (M.A., Change Leadership)

“Why, in the 21st century with all of the knowledge we have, were my students struggling to graduate in four, five, and six years from college?” said Cho. “Why did they not have the same experiences as I did as an undergraduate? Why did these significant inequities continue to exist?”

Cho concluded by invoking a physics formula to describe the process required for social change.

“Mass is the critical mass of individuals who care about the issue, who think now is the time to act,” she said. “Acceleration happens not just by financial resources, but through the media, exposure, and voices that keep the movement going.”

“TC graduates,” Cho said, “we are the force, the movement, to realize transformative, lasting change. Our time at TC isn’t ending, it is evolving.”

And at Tuesday afternoon’s master’s ceremony, student speaker David Taliaferro spoke of seeing new possibilities in life. Taliaferro, a tactical officer from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was receiving a master’s degree from TC’s Executive Master's Program in Change Leadership, known as XMA. Taliaferro drew on his knowledge of navigation to encourage his fellow graduates to chart their own new and different paths in the future.

“As a leader, I struggled as a community navigator,” he said. “I tended to look at the stars I’d been familiar with all my life. Though I had seen millions of other stars, I stuck to looking for the ones I was most comfortable referencing. At TC, I learned not only to navigate towards a more accurate position but learned the excitement of seeking out new stars as I worked to become a more effective leader and change-agent.”

Taliaferro concluded by urging his classmates to "Find your three-star fix, set your course, and remember the African proverb: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.’"

– Ellen Livingston


Related Stories:

It Wouldn’t Be Convocation without the Music…

Graduates Gallery 2016

Honoring One of Its Own: TC Awards the Cleveland E. Dodge Medal to Board Co-Chair Jack Hyland

It Took a Village: Celebrating TC's 2016 1st-Generation Graduates and Their Families

Checking in After Fifty Years: TC's Golden Anniversary Alumni

Published Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Ayesha Rabadi
Katherine Cho
David Tialaferro