People began filing in for the 91st commencement celebration for Southern Oregon University at 7:45 on Saturday morning seeking out shade to beat the heat. The temperatures rose into the mid 70s during the celebration, which receives hot weather on most years, although rain just days before prompted the university to suggest bringing umbrellas and dressing in layers.
But for proud families and friends who waited more than an hour for the ceremony to start. decked out in sunglasses and carrying seat cushions, the event was worth the wait.
The commencement proceedings began at approximately 9 a.m. at Mountain Arena with a quick welcome and promises to be brief.
After the 1,000-plus students took their seats, university President Linda Schott stood at the podium in her first commencement for SOU. She began at the university after a nationwide search. Interim President Roy Saigo stepped down last July. Schott had been president at the University of Maine, Presque Isle prior to accepting the position at SOU.
Before beginning her formal talk, she urged students to post the hashtag on social media, #RaiderUp. She made only an oblique reference to the university’s financial challenges, saying the university’s strategic plan is at a “mid-point.” The university is still digging its way out of financial difficulty since retrenchment in 2014 and a shift from statewide support. It has decided to raise tuition by 12 percent next year, the highest increase in the Oregon system.
But Schott focused in her brief remarks on the commitment to educate students for “jobs that aren’t even created yet,” a nod to changing technology which forces universities to shift programs in response.
But in the end Schott closed her remarks with something less technology oriented. “We are first and foremost committed to integrity,” she declared, adding the exhortation, “Help us create a more just and peaceful world.”
Keynote speaker Winona LaDuke, an author and activist for indigenous rights and environment, grew up in Ashland. Her mother is noted artist Betty LaDuke, who worked in SOU’s Art Department for 30 years.
“Seeds represent hope and the possibility of the future,” said LaDuke as she discussed the need for Southern Oregon to retain its agricultural roots. “You have gone from pears to grapes to hemp and marijuana,” she told the audience, while urging them to consider more than profits — to also consider the land itself and what it needs.
She identified herself as a “water protector” and thanked those who supported her and others who protested the North Dakota Access Pipeline. “Democracy is not a spectator sport,” she told graduating seniors while pleading with them to fight the proposed Veresen Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline, a proposed 232-mile, 36-inch diameter natural gas pipeline which would transport fuel from Malin, Oregon, southeast of Klamath Falls, to Jordan Cove on the Oregon coast, where it would be pumped into ships bound for Asia. “I look out here and think, you must know you belong to this land.”
LaDuke wrapped up by telling the audience, “There is no social change fairy,” and she asked them to rise to the occasion presented. “This is your moment. Be courageous, resilient and visionary.”
The final speaker, graduating art major Dante Fumagalli, extolled the virtues of smaller classes and the ability to know their professors. “I know it’s not normal to talk to professors about something other than class work,” he told the audience before encouraging lifelong education as a prerequisite for succeeding in the world today. He also told his classmates to be vigilant in understanding that world. “Our education is not over. It’s important to be media literate in an ever-changing world.”
With that he stepped aside and the names of graduating students began to be read to the cheers and support of their friends and family in attendance.
Graduates recycled their robes for needy students next year and also their water bottles before leaving. The Hawk, one of SOU’s cafes, offered lunches for friends and families in attendance.
Roughly 40,000 people have earned degrees from Southern Oregon University since its inception in 1872. Data shows 39.6 percent of first-time, full-time students graduate from SOU and about 20 percent do so on time.
SOU's Class of 2017 includes 866 recipients of bachelor's degrees, plus 61 from the Oregon Health & Science University nursing program at the Ashland campus. Another 184 students received graduate degrees.
At 11:35, two and a half hours after it began, the former students moved their tassels to left from right, tossed their hats at the enthusiastic urging of President Schott and the 91st commencement was complete.
— Email Ashland freelance writer Julie Akins at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/@julieakins.