Brooklyn College felt the bern during this year’s special commencement ceremony.
On Tuesday, May 30, the CUNY School celebrated its 92nd annual graduation, held at the Barclays Center for the first time, as United States Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the keynote speaker, received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.
The arena was nearly filled, as graduates, their friends, family and faculty celebrated the day. Elected officials including Senator Chuck Schumer, Borough President Eric Adams, Public Advocate Letitia James and Councilmember Jumaane Williams, were also on hand.
“On this joyful day, we celebrate the conferral of 2,957 bachelor degrees and 1,081 masters’ degrees,” said Vice President for Enrollment Management Lillian O’Reilly. “We also have 66 students receiving advanced certificates. In all, 4,100 graduates make up the class up 2017. These graduates are extremely diverse. They come from 101 countries from around the world and they speak 61 languages.”
Sanders, who received a loud ovation, discussed his ties to the borough as well as to the school. “My childhood in Brooklyn was shaped by two profound realities,” he explained. “First my mom, dad and older brother, who graduated from Brooklyn College, lived in a three-and-half-room rent-controlled apartment. As with many of your families who don’t have a lot of money, financial pressure caused friction and tension within our household. From those experiences of growing up without a lot of money, I have never forgotten that there are millions of people throughout this country who struggle to put food on the table, pay the electric bill, try to save for their kids’ education.”
The senator graduated James Madison High School and spent one year in Brooklyn College before transferring to the University of Chicago. “My mom had died the previous year and I felt that it was time to leave the neighborhood and see what the rest of the world looked like,” he recalled.
Sanders repeated the message that he had conveyed during his campaign during the Democratic primaries last year, focusing on the economic troubles of the country. “Today in America, the top one tenth of one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent,” he said, adding, however, “You know and I know these are tough times for our country, but I do want to say that standing up here and looking out at the beautiful people in front of me, I have enormous confidence in the future of our country.”
He encouraged the graduates to make change. “The only rational choice we have and response we have is to stand up and fight back, reclaim American democracy and create a government that works for all of us, not just the one percent,” he said. “For us to do that it is necessary that we fight for a vision of a new America, an America based on progressive, humane values, not the values of the oligarchy. It means we aren’t going to throw 23 million Americans off the health care they have. We are going to bring health care for all as a right, not a privilege.”
Sanders also discussed lessening the burden of paying for education. “We aren’t going to cut student assistance,” he said. “We believe that anyone in America who has the desire and ability should be able to get a higher education regardless of his or her income.”
Brooklyn College President Michelle Anderson, who preceded Sanders at the podium, spoke about how diversity continues to make the school special. “Today, Brooklyn College is one of the most richly diverse academic communities in the world where students of many races, religions and nationalities study and learn in peace,” she said. “We are a richer community because of our diversity. Our students learn to engage with difference and complexity which makes them interculturally competent and willing to assume challenges in leadership in a diverse world.”