Opening Remarks

Mr. H. Patrick Swygert
President, Howard University

hps5.gif (15890 bytes)Good morning! Mrs. Clinton; Chairman Savage;Trustees;Honored Platform Dignitaries; Members of my cabinet; every family and friend gathered here… And most of all, to the 1998 Graduates of Howard University!

Today, we celebrate the 130th Commencement of this great university, steeped in the very finest of Howard’s traditions. Pause for just a moment. Take a good look at those sitting near you. This, my colleagues, is what "Leadership for America and the global community" looks like!

Today, we are also joined by six sterling pillars of American leadership, each of whom will become an "official" member of the Howard University family:

  • Hillary Rodham Clinton, First Lady of the United States;
  • Kenneth Chenault, president and CEO of American Express Company;
  • Ann M. Fudge, executive vice president of Kraft Foods and president of its Maxwell House Post Divisions;
  • Dr. Edmond Gordon, professor emeritus at Yale University;
  • The Honorable Joseph Hatchett, chief justice of the United States 11th Circuit Court of Appeals; and
  • Gordon Parks, celebrated photographer, filmmaker, author and composer.

And so, this morning, each of you will rise to take the mantle of leadership in your new careers, your continuing academic journeys, your communities, and most important, in your personal crusades to effect significant, positive change.

This very affirmation will be spoken to graduates across the United States in the weeks to come.

However, as sons and daughters of Howard University—"the Capstone," "the Mecca,"—this is more than a simple affirmation. It is the deep conviction that will drive you, steer you and—even in the darkest of hours—lift you.

Let me remind you of your legacy. It is not a legacy of names, but a legacy of action—and activism.

It’s more than Trustee Frederick Douglass, it is his bold voice that even today speaks out against America’s still-peculiar institutions.

It’s more than Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, it is her power to frame creative thought into strong words to tell "our story."

It’s more than Mordecai Wyatt Johnson. It is the way he taught us to build a community, a nation of unparalleled intellectual capacity and navigate its unhalted growth through even the most hostile, perilous times.

It’s more than Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad and Jessye Norman, it is their ability to dance not only with feet, but with spirit; to sing our song in the strangest of lands; and to portray our images, not as others see us, but as we truly—beautifully—are.

It’s more than Patricia Roberts Harris, it is the grace with which she taught us to take a stand and stand strong, to blaze trails through uncharted territory and to lead others through it.

It is more than Vernon Jordan and Spottswood Robinson, it’s their Davidian ability to fight injustice, not with rocks of stone, but boulders of righteousness.

Sons and daughters of Howard, yours is a heritage of leadership. Even more, as the product of a NATIONAL university, you are entitled to enter the arena of leadership. What you do with your lives will determine your ability to remain there. I have no doubts that you will.

Howard University continues to produce leaders for America and the global community. In fact, as of this year’s commencement, there are 72 Howard University Ph.D. candidates who hold 74 master’s and bachelor’s degrees from Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Of those degrees, more than half—45—are from Howard University. This validates the caliber of excellence found here, from our Graduate School of Arts and Sciences which, this year, celebrates the 40th anniversary of its Ph.D. program, to individual students like Howard University’s most recent Fulbright Scholar, Cristel Williams, a graduating senior in the School of Communications.

I hasten to mention, as well, that our academic leadership is complemented by the spirit of personal leadership exhibited by so many of our graduates here today. Each of you, in your own way, enlivens the Howard legacy.

Dawn Cannon, soon to be Dr. Cannon, we salute your determination today. You were so committed to receive a Howard M.D. that you endured four years of separation and countless 12-hour commutes to visit your husband who was pursuing the master’s degree in Florida.

June Bloedorn, your determination to earn the master of Social Work degree has not been without extreme sacrifice. Early in your pregnancy, you began to lose your eyesight. You persevered, however, attending classes, often depending on subway strangers for directions. You endured the surgery and the loss of your child; yet, your brave journey is marked by the respect of your peers and faculty, and your solid academic record, including a 3.81 GPA.

Marjorie Alexander, you have been relentless in your pursuit of a Howard University law degree. Having maintained your full-time career as a registered nurse throughout, you battled rush-hour traffic AND the severe pain of Lupus, overcoming a difficult academic start to win the Law School’s L. Douglass Wilder Award for Academic Achievement.

Dominique Charlot-Swilley, only days after finishing a Policy Analysis in the Office of Representative Charles Rangel, you were struck down by the paralyzing effects of a stroke, complicated by a battery of subsequent medical crises resulting in the loss of memory and language. Despite reports that your legs would never again function normally, you have persevered to defend your dissertation and complete your clinical internship in psychiatry. Shortly, you will walk before us to receive your doctorate, with both legs and all of your cognitive processes acutely intact.

Stephen and Regina Enwefa, your marriage exemplifies the term "shared vision." Together you completed your undergraduate degrees at Grambling State University. Together you completed your master’s degrees at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign. And today, together still, you both will receive your Howard University Ph.D.s in Communication Sciences and Disorders.

Precious Murchison, despite the untimely death of your mother, you have supported yourself and been a positive role model for others, bolstering the Howard University Mock Trial Debate Team to a national championship in 1997 and a second-place national standing this year, in addition to being selected as best attorney during a 1997 regional mock trial tournament. Today, having overcome financial and emotional hardships, you graduate magna cum laude with a 3.55 GPA.

Shemiele (Sha-meal) Da’ Briel (Dah-bre-el), your energy inspires us. Despite the loss of your personal inspiration, your grandmother, you worked three jobs to relieve your family of your financial obligations, cared for your younger sibling back home, tutored mathematics, volunteered in the community and participated actively in campus organizations, NEVER losing sight of your plan to graduate in three and one-half years—with a double major. Today, we will proudly award you TWO degrees, a B.S. in mathematics and a B.A. in Spanish, with honors.

Renan Beauchard (Bo-shard), you persisted in completing your physician’s assistance clinical rotations despite the loss of your brother in a car accident.

Ewenet (Eh-wen-nay) Belaineh (Beh-lay-nah), you have proved your understanding of healing, having cared for your father who suffered a heart attack while visiting from Ethiopia. Your training as a physician’s assistant has no doubt prepared you to care for him upon your return.

Tori Dillard, despite the loss of both grandmothers you, too, have persisted in completing the requirements for the physician’s assistant degree.

Nyree Telfer, you have continued the good fight despite the fact that your mother lost her’s to cancer. Without her inspiration, and support, you returned to school and today will fulfill her dream, you will receive your college degree.

Althea Smith, as a graduate in Clinical Laboratory Sciences, you have more than demonstrated what it means to "have heart." Only a year ago, you underwent open-heart surgery, which rendered you incapable of working to pay for school. Yet, even after receiving a Trustee Scholarship, you were determined to support yourself, working through seemingly endless shifts at Howard University Hospital and the Health Sciences Library.

Francine Wood, the death of your father was not only an emotional blow, but a financial one, as well. Today, having made your way through numerous struggles, you not only graduate with honors in Clinical Laboratory Science, but—more important—you honor your father.

Joseph Foster Phillips IV, you will graduate today with a degree in Architecture. Your foundation, however, is stronger than that of any building. Your personal convictions have enabled you to successfully fight sickle cell anemia. We expect you now to go forth and build pathways for those who will follow your example.

Carla Shird, your ears do not receive sound. However, you have sent a loud message to the non-hearing community. Your decision to pursue your degree at Howard University speaks volumes about the true capacity of the human spirit, transcending words. It’s leaders like you to whom the next generation will listen.

Let me, also, take a moment of personal privilege and recognize Alicia Rangel, the daughter of Representative Charles Rangel, who today will receive her degree from the Department of Radio, TV and Film. Alicia will undoubtedly continue her father’s legacy as an eloquent warrior for the people of this nation and, more specifically, for Howard University.

Certainly, there are many whose names have not been mentioned. Know, however, that while we may not have told your story here today, we have prepared YOU to tell it, not only with your words but, more so, through your works. Leadership is, after all, a matter of works:

  • working through the toughest of situations;
  • working smarter than adversaries you encounter; and
  • working with those who will most benefit from what you have been prepared to offer.

Celebrating our 130th Commencement with us today are those whose work has benefited humanity here and abroad.

Let me quickly take this opportunity to welcome home Dr. Robert Cummings, chairman of Howard University’s African Studies Department, who has returned to us from Capetown where he served as our second South African Scholar-in-Residence.

Let us ALL take this opportunity to welcome the First Lady of the United States, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Mrs. Clinton, your leadership, grace, fortitude, intellect and charm, set the tone for this graduation, for America’s future, and certainly for global collaboration in the next millennium. Thank you for accepting our invitation. We gladly accept your wisdom this great day.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce Howard University’s strongest ally and defender, from Wall Street to Sixth Street: Chairman of the Board of Trustees Frank Savage.