With pomp, circumstance and words of encouragement and advice from Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., ringing in their ears, the last class of the Women’s College of Georgian Court University graduated yesterday in a ceremony that drew hundreds of well wishers, family and friends to the Lakewood campus.
The day, which unfolded seamlessly in the university’s Wellness Center Arena, saw 384 students receive bachelor’s degrees in a number of fields including education, social work, fine arts, nursing and business at the institution founded in 1908 by the Sisters of Mercy. The university will re-open in September as a fully co-ed institution.
The day before, 187 graduate school candidates received master’s degrees in a range of academic disciplines. Included among these were the first graduates of three new GCU masters programs in applied behavior analysis, early childhood education and homeland security.
Bishop O’Connell, who received an honorary doctorate of ministry from Mercy Sister Rosemary E. Jeffries, Georgian Court’s president during the graduation. He preached the homily at the Baccalaureate Mass which began the day and delivered the commencement address several hours later. Throughout, he focused strongly on the core values of the mission of the Sisters of Mercy: sacredness of life; human dignity; mercy; justice; service and excellence.
In his homily, he exhorted the graduates to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, keeping his “inclusive command” to love one another and “all those who cross your path in life: the beautiful and the ugly; the rich and the poor; the born and the unborn; the innocent and the guilty; the young and the old; those who are like you and those who are different.”
In his commencement address, the bishop offered “rules to live by” to the hundreds of young people gathered before him, urging them first to “believe in yourself. Before you can accomplish anything in life – certainly anything good, enduring or worthwhile – you must believe you can do it.”
In a time when respect for others is often hard to come by, he gently reminded the graduates that “the mark of an educated person is civility,” and called civility a “characteristic that recognizes the fact that just as (you) are created in God’s image and worthy of respect, others, too – with their own uniqueness and worth – deserve respect, another core value of this Mercy university.”
He encouraged them to live their faith noting that, no matter what their faith, they chose to study at “New Jersey’s Mercy university,” an “institution born from the heart of the Church … You must stand up and be counted as a believer whose beliefs are real and integral of daily life. Walk away today,” he urged, “committed to living your faith.”
Finally, he urged them to take their diplomas, their skills and their energies out into the world and “make a difference. That is the way you bring life to service, the final core value of this university,” he said. “… If you reach out for your diploma believing in yourself and being grateful; respecting others – and being grateful; putting others first – and being grateful; living your faith and being grateful … then your years at Georgian Court University will not only have been a success but will be the occasion for you to make a difference.”
The bishop’s remarks and indeed, his presence at both the Mass and the graduation was welcomed by graduates and their families. Mary Elliot, a member of St. Mary of the Lake Parish, Lakewood, a reader at the Mass, was one of many who said “having him here made the day more special.”