The stirring speech by politician and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, which described the odds that her parents and she have overcome to help others, highlighted Teachers College's 2021 Convocation. [Read a story about and watch remarks by Abrams, who received the College’s President's Medal of Excellence.]

But similar stories of persevering, change and triumph abounded throughout the hour-long ceremony.

Convocation 2021: Watch the Full Ceremony

In remarks that concluded with his introduction of Abrams, Teachers College President Thomas Bailey delivered a mediation on a year in which he himself learned key leadership lessons.

“Leaders make a difference by the example they set,” said Bailey, who was hailed by TC Board Chair William Rueckert for approaching “each day and each challenge with curiosity, humility, care and compassion” despite having had to make “difficult decisions every single day since the pandemic began.”

Leaders make a difference by the example they set. As our world rebuilds, this is your leadership moment.

—TC President Thomas Bailey

Bailey said that “the past 14 months have taught us to expect and prepare for the unexpected.” He has come to understand that “leadership is a collaborative, team endeavor” in which, at TC, students have played a major role, and that “real leaders do not exercise or claim absolute authority,” but instead “derive their authority from the respect and trust of those they serve.”

Bailey concluded by telling the 2021 graduates that “as our world rebuilds, this is your leadership moment.” The formidable challenges ahead include “an education system that has replicated its inequities online; a fragmented, under-resourced public health system, and a democracy that has literally come under siege.” The key in making a real difference, he told TC’s newest alumni, will be “your ability to lead with humility, respect, courage and the awareness that your words and actions deeply affect others.”

An Ongoing Story

Convocation 2021 opened with a brief video that chronicled Teachers College from its founding by Grace Hoadley Dodge to its ongoing work today — an arc that also described a progression from ambition and determination to excellence, leadership and, ultimately, joy.

“It’s called cathedral thinking — the mindset of architects and builders who may never see their plans fully realized but entrust to future generations to carry them forward,” intoned the narrator against a backdrop of black-and-white images of the College’s earliest days. “It describes a broad vision that meets present needs while anticipating those of subsequent generations.”

Moving to the present, “each new generation of faculty and each new cohort of students are the heart of this cathedral,” the narrator said, even as — in the words of the late TC philosopher Maxine Greene — the College “is always becoming.” TC continues to generate “new knowledge, to recognize what we still don’t know, and to work toward a smarter, healthier, more equitable and more joyful world.”

Speakers in the first segment of the proceedings paid tribute to the determination of the College’s 2021 graduates.

I want you to know that we see you and so deeply appreciate you. You have set a new bar for demonstrating grace under pressure and made believers of us all.

—Janice Robinson, Vice President for Diversity & Community Affairs

“I want you to know that we see you and so deeply appreciate you,” said Janice Robinson, Vice President for Diversity Affairs and Title IX Coordinator, and Associate Professor of Higher Education. “For more than a year you have turned your living spaces into classrooms, offices, libraries and gyms, while helping your children navigate their own remote learning and caring for spouses, partners and elderly parents.”  Robinson told graduates they have “set a new bar for demonstrating grace under pressure and made believers of us all.”

And student speaker Raksha Sule, who is receiving her master’s degree in International Education Development, said that, like many of her fellow graduates, her determination has “evolved through teachings over the years.”

“For me, it’s three teachings — of courage, compassion and connectedness,” said Sule, who was introduced by one of last year’s student speakers, Woo Jung Amber Kim, now a teacher in California. Her courage, Sule said, was inspired by her “incredible immigrant Indian parents who were fearless against a system of immense inequities to bring my brother and I joy and stability.” Her sense of compassion stemmed from “my own experience of reclaiming my body, mind and spirit, teaching me that the power of turning inward to heal within brings forth a deepened dimension to nurture kindness for others.” And her feelings of connectedness were “shaped by people I had worked with in settings of conflict who embodied an ethereal capacity to transform the grounds of suffering into collective resilience for change.”

But the pandemic, too, has been her teacher, Sule said. At TC, she has come to believe that “amidst pain we are healers,” and to see, “amidst loneliness...connectedness, friends as radical collaborators co-leading educational opportunities across time zones.”

Sule’s ode to determination was movingly echoed in a segment devoted to diversity and TC’s first-generation 2021 graduates, featuring Sitara Maria (M.A. ’21) Rafaela Espinal (Ed.D. ’21) and Fahad Awan (M.Ed. ’21), and faculty members Carmen Martínez-Roldán, Associate Professor of Associate Professor of Bilingual/Bicultural Education, and Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Associate Professor of English Education. In a sequence threaded with scenes of Colette Young (Ed.D. ’21) singing “Somewhere (There’s a Place for Us)” from the musical “West Side Story,” the graduates read moving tributes to their parents and grandparents. Sealey-Ruiz concluded by telling them that they are “dream-keepers who offer us light in dark times.”

Spotlighting the Mentor Connection

In centering the theme of excellence, the Convocation ceremony spotlighted the importance of the connection between students and their faculty mentors. The segment opened with Jeanne Goffi-Fynn, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Music & Music Education, and doctoral student Ereni Sevasti singing the duet “For Good,” from the hit Broadway show “Wicked,” in a stirring sequence filmed under the elevated subway tracks on West 125th Street and 12th Avenue.

After the song — which ends with Glinda (Goffi-Fynn) and Elphaba (Sevasti) telling each other “Because I knew you, I have been changed for good” — TC Provost Stephanie Rowley talked about “the magic that goes on between mentors and proteges.

“In our society, teaching is increasingly defined by the metric that excellence has come to mean — of some fixed external standard,” she said. “And certainly, the journey to excellence can be important, but there’s a different journey, which is about discovering and pursing our interests and passions and becoming the people we want to be.”

At TC, Rowley said, “we believe everyone can walk that path, regardless of the societal forces arrayed against them and the limiting narratives of others.” In that process, the bonds shared by mentor and mentee, which are created by “acts of teaching and learning” is ultimately “a bond of love — and we celebrate that love today.”

Students themselves offered ample testimony to how their faculty mentors have supported them during the pandemic. In a sequence in which they began and finished each other’s sentences, Raven DeRamus-Byers (M.A. ’21), naya Herman (M.Ed. ’21), Lauren Salazar (M.Ed. ’21) and Brooke Hayman (M.Ed. ’21) said:

“This year has marked perhaps the most massive political upheaval many of us have ever known. When we were frustrated, scared and sad, angry and cynical, our faculty helped us to understand these events in the context of human history. And perhaps even more importantly, they created spaces for us, both formal and informal, to vent, take actions, grieve, and just be. Through all these incredible acts of grace and kindness, our professors taught us the most important lesson of all: the great joy that is found in giving of yourself.”

Amplifying that last thought, Sonya Douglass Horsford, Associate Professor of Education Leadership and Founding Director of BERC, urged the graduates to consider their own impact as mentors.

“By preparing the next generation, you are instilling excellence,” said Horsford, who was introduced by one of TC’s most beloved mentors, Edmund Gordon, Richard March Hoe Professor of Psychology & Education Emeritus, who will turn 100 in June. “Through joy, hope and adventure, you invested in your own capacity to be an agent for change and good in the world. To be clear: excellence isn’t only about personal accomplishment. It means so much more when we consider excellence as the standard by which we give of our selves to others through service.”

An Ode to Joy

The last segment of Convocation, fittingly, was dedicated to the theme of joy. Among its highlights, TC alumna and Olympic fencer Nicole Ross spoke about the “pure joy I feel when I am doing my sport or coaching younger athletes toward their dreams,” and urged graduates to connect with “that rare but beautiful feeling when your passion becomes your purpose and all of the hard work you’ve put in can shine through.” There were greetings from alumna Mildred Garcia, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities; jazz trumpeter, composer and educator Wynton Marsalis; David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee; and TC faculty member Jordan Matsudaira (currently on leave while serving as U.S. Deputy Under Secretary of Education), who told graduates, “After my turn in government is over, I look forward to returning to my research at TC and studying the good you’ll cause.”

Thomas Rock, TC’s Vice Provost appeared on screen — always a sign that Convocation is approaching its denouement.

And then:

Cut to Broadway, north of TC’s campus. A young man in a Manhattan School of Music sweatshirt is walking along, humming the theme from Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” He turns east onto 120th Street and enters Russell Courtyard through the delivery driveway (which, not incidentally, has great acoustics). Though he’s wearing a COVID mask, we can see him register surprise when he finds two bassists warming up to the same theme. After a moment, he takes out a baton and begins to conduct. Other musicians, from both MSM and TC appear with their instruments — violins, piccolos, French horns, bassoons, cymbals, timpani — some in the courtyard, standing or seated at picnic tables, others in the windows of the surrounding buildings. (Others, taped from their homes, are part of the mix.) Over the next five minutes, as the music swells to full force, more than 50 musicians join in.

“Ode to Joy” thunders to its rousing conclusion. The musicians raise their instruments and shout “Congratulations!” Fade to TC blue, and with the gentle strains of a jazzy “Pomp and Circumstances,” the names of 2,200 TC graduates scroll across the screen.

Convocation 2021 is officially on the books.