August 28, 2006
Anyone who worried about Tulane University's prospects after Hurricane Katrina rolled across New Orleans last August needed to be at Commencement 2006 on May 13. The eagerly awaited event grandly and poignantly dismissed any misgivings about the university's future.
The ceremony -- featuring academic pomp and circumstance, music ranging from sorrowful to joyful, speeches and a rousing finale -- marked a key milestone in the university's journey back from the brink of disaster.
The event sent a clear signal of Tulane's determination to continue and strengthen its mission of teaching, research and community involvement.
Headlining the show, and placing it on a national stage, were the commencement speakers, former U.S. presidents George H.W. Bush and William Jefferson Clinton, who each received an honorary doctorate of law presented by Tulane President Scott Cowen. Putting an exclamation point on the event, top-rated television show host and New Orleans native Ellen DeGeneres made an unannounced appearance toward the end of the program.
In his remarks, Bush praised the courage and tenacity of Tulane's students, faculty and staff in the face of unimaginable adversity. "The floodwaters may have breached the levees that surround this city and may have destroyed home after home, block after block," he said. "But today we also know they couldn't break the spirit of the people who call this remarkable, improbable city home."
Clinton drew a parallel between Tulane's recent experience and the ceremony's musical invocation, "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," performed by Dr. Michael White (G '79, '84) and his Jazz Band. "It was played the way Dixieland bands have always done it -- at first low, weeping, sorrowful," he said. "Then, at the end of the funeral service, a new beginning, played fast and happy. Life is like that -- it's all about new beginnings. I wish you many more."
Both presidents commended the graduating class for its selfless work in helping the university and the city to recover, and urged class members to continue with their volunteer efforts, wherever they might go.
The presidents' advice resonated in Cowen's words to the graduating students: "By coming back, by continuing to study, by working so hard to help this city, you have shown resiliency, courage and the ability to overcome adversity that will serve you well throughout your life," he said.
Though hailing from different sides of the American political spectrum, Bush and Clinton began a partnership in December 2004 to call attention to and raise money for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami.
Just nine months later, they were visiting hurricane-afflicted regions in Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, beginning vigorous fundraising to provide relief for storm victims. The Bush- Clinton Katrina Fund has raised $130 million, of which approximately $30 million has been donated to universities and colleges along the Gulf Coast, with $750,000 going to Tulane.
As a result of the storm's disruption, life in New Orleans has been anything but business-as-usual as the city tries to re-establish normalcy and many residents struggle to rebuild their homes. Likewise, this year's commencement ceremony marked many departures from patterns of the past.
"Everything was different," said Deborah Grant, senior vice president for external affairs. "We had a different venue, which caused us to change everything about the program. We had three star speakers and we had the national press corps coming."
The new venue was the New Orleans Arena, located immediately adjacent to the Louisiana Superdome, which had hosted Tulane's commencement since 1999 but was unable to accommodate the ceremony this year because it was damaged during Katrina.
The smaller Arena, which normally hosts basketball games, ultimately offered a more intimate setting for the 17,000 family and friends of the 2,200 graduates in attendance.
The cozy ambiance reminded Earl Retif, university registrar and member of the planning committee, of the "old days" when commencement was held in McAlister Auditorium.
"Commencement ceremonies in McAlister always had lots of energy," said Retif, "The Arena, which is more intimate than the Dome, captured that excitement. The place really rocked."
The students, their families, the university's faculty and many guests filled the Arena with a buzz of excitement from the shared understanding that what was taking place was unusual and historic.
Music and singing have always played prominent roles in Tulane's commencement ceremonies, and this year the power of music was more palpable then ever.
The crowd was "called to order" by herald trumpeters, and the pace of the colorfully robed faculty in the academic procession was set by the stirring martial tempo of a bagpipe band. Irvin Mayfield, whose New Orleans Jazz Orchestra has moved to Tulane's campus, performed a rendition of the National Anthem. (See more about Mayfield on page 8 of this Tulanian.)
Michael White's Jazz Band provided a uniquely New Orleans musical setting throughout the ceremony.
Standing out this year was singer/composer Jep Epstein's performance of his original composition, "Our Home, Louisiana," a ballad recognizing the courage of Louisianans in the face of hardship. Epstein accompanied himself on the piano in a soulful musical statement backed up by Michael White's orchestra.
Local diva Wanda Rouzan has delighted crowds at past commencements with the song "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?" This year, Rouzan's rendition of the sweetly melancholy song carried additional meaning. Rouzan, who lost her home in the storm, prefaced her performance by telling the audience that she had just returned to New Orleans from Florida, where she had evacuated. She said she was glad to be home again in Algiers Point, across the river from the French Quarter.
As the emotion-filled commencement ceremony neared its conclusion, Cowen introduced DeGeneres, who, true to form, sidestepped offering graduates serious advice.
"I heard everybody would be wearing robes," quipped DeGeneres as she arrived on stage wearing a bathrobe and bedroom slippers. "Seriously, you are amazing people," she said. "You are a very famous graduating class. To get this far and all of a sudden get displaced and have to go to different schools -- it's an experience that will form you, shape you, mold you and, suddenly, you're Jell-O."
Gently lampooning all commencement speakers, DeGeneres offered the departing graduates her own valuable wisdom. "Take care of yourselves," she urged. "When you're younger, you don't listen to your parents, so I really want to say it: hydrate, exfoliate, moisturize, exercise and floss!"
Winding up a memorable commencement ceremony, Cowen presented DeGeneres with an umbrella emblazoned with the Tulane shield, and the stage party second-lined its way off, jauntily led by Michael White's jazz band.
Umbrellas sprouted and handkerchiefs waved above the animated crowd of graduates as confetti cannons boomed and clouds of green, blue and white beach balls tumbled from the rafters.
Every commencement ceremony is a rite of passage for the students participating in it. The university honors its traditions by repeating actions and words that long have been a part of the ceremony, and these actions and words give meaning and legitimacy to the event. At the core moment of the ceremony, the university president confers degrees upon the candidates, at which moment they become graduates of the university. This watershed moment marks the end of one stage of their lives and the beginning of the next.
But this May, amid the festive music, confetti and the celebrations of new graduates and their families, the Tulane University community celebrated its own special rite of passage. With the conferring of degrees on a new generation of graduates, in the face of the trying experiences of the previous nine months, the university reaffirmed its own existence and strengthened its hold on its own destiny -- to heal from its hurts and to grow, prosper and continue in its mission.
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