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Degrees conferred — virtually — for 2,400 SIUE graduates

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Chancellor Randy Pembrook conferred degrees upon more than 2,400 graduates during the spring 2020 commencement exercises held virtually Saturday, May 9. Commencement is available at

Pembrook welcomed the graduates to the more than 112,000 SIUE alumni. “You represent a wide array of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives, and you’ve made SIUE a stronger institution,” he said. “Thank you for making SIUE a better learning environment based in your ideas and efforts. Because of your excellent preparation, we are confident that you will make an incredible difference and inspire those you meet. Through you, we achieve our mission of shaping a changing world.”

Pembrook (shown) quoted South African human rights activist Desmond Tutu, “Do your little bit of good where you are. It’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

SIU System President Dan Mahony, PhD, also congratulated the Class of 2020. “Everyone I know who has gotten to this point has overcome challenges, whether academic, financial, personal or all of the above,” he said. “You’ve gotten here by overcoming those challenges, and you should be proud of that. You deserve this moment, enjoy this moment.

“Part of college is adapting to change along the way. Clearly, no class in SIUE history has adapted to more change than you have. While this has forever changed your college experiences, we do hope this experience has helped you learn to adapt to change quickly and better prepared you for the challenges you will face ahead.”

College of Arts and Sciences student speaker Hayley Smith, of Decatur, earned a bachelor’s in political science, and described the year as a rollercoaster. “We’ve experienced highs and incredible lows, smooth transitions and major drops,” she said. “Throughout it all, we have continued to thrive. We have such amazing strengths. We are proving we can thrive in the hardest of times. We have and will continue to persevere.

“We cannot allow our present situation to derail our plans and dreams. We must hang onto the lessons that SIUE has imparted to us – taught us to be confident in our knowledge and talents, even in the face of adversity.”

Krista Russell, of Jerseyville, earned a master’s in environmental science and served as the Graduate School student speaker. She described overcoming many challenges during their academic careers, but then added another. “Continue to strive to be your best, using your unique talents and abilities,” she said. “My uniqueness has given me many opportunities at SIUE, such as presenting my thesis research at a conference in Puerto Rico. As college graduates, we can accomplish amazing things. Accept my challenge to shape this changing world by standing out, chasing your dreams, and striving to be the best person and professional that you can be.”

The School of Business student speaker was Caleb Abernathy, of Neoga, who earned a bachelor’s in computer management and information systems. He praised his peers for securing their degrees during these uncertain times and reminded them that the lemonade stand is always open. “It goes to the old saying, ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade,’” he said. “Throughout life, we will no doubt face a variety of adversities and obstacles. It’s how we choose to approach and conquer these difficult situations that will ultimately shape our future. Continue to be bold, be courageous and give your absolute best in everything that you do.”

Ashley Monier, of Troy, earned a bachelor’s in psychology, and was the student speaker for the School of Education, Health and Human Behavior. She noted that gathering virtually was one more example of their ingenuity in the face of adversity. “As we persevere through our challenges, we are showing the world that SIUE graduates have what it takes to succeed,” she said. “We can always look back fondly at our undergraduate experiences, and remember it as a period of growth and opportunity. A commonalty among us all is that we are prepared to go into this changing world and present ourselves as professionals.”

The School of Engineering student speaker was Thomas Giacobbe, of Glen Carbon, who earned a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. He quoted retired U.S. Navy Admiral William McRaven, who said, “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”

Giacobbe explained that if you start every day by making your bed, you will have completed the first task of the day. “It will give you a small sense of pride and encourage you to do another task, and another,” he said. “By the end of the day, that one task completed will turn into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce that it’s the little things in life that matter. And if you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right.

“Tomorrow morning, we will wake up for the first time as college graduates. A brand-new day is waiting for its bed to be made. Let’s make it well, and let’s make it great.”

Kathryn Gratza earned a doctor of nursing, nurse anesthesia specialization, was the School of Nursing’s student speaker and addressed the COVID-19 pandemic. “There is not much more that we can do as nursing professionals to prove our value to the world than what we are experiencing right now,” she said. “Our future is full of hope and endless opportunity to use our knowledge and skills to provide hope to others.”

The School of Pharmacy student speaker was Austin Dillon, of Dixon, who achieved a doctor of pharmacy. “Although these may be uncertain times, I think there is one final lesson that SIUE has yet to offer – that even in the most challenging of times, we cannot get so caught up in all the stress that we forget to enjoy the moment,” he said. “I challenge you all to take this mentality forward into your careers, don’t get caught up in the end result and don’t forget to celebrate the small victories along the way.”

Two annual awards were announced, although presentations will be made at a future traditional commencement ceremony. Larry Heitz received the Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. In 1969, Heitz became the first person to graduate from SIUE with an MBA. In addition to his impressive business career and significant community commitments, he established an award to recognize a School of Business faculty member for excellence in research and scholarship. He is a member of the SIUE Alumni Hall of Fame.

Shirley Portwood, PhD, received the Distinguished Service Award, bestowed in appreciation for dedication and service to the University. An alumna, professor emerita and former SIU Board of Trustees member, she is an accomplished and prolific writer, researcher and storyteller, and positively impacted countless students during her long career as an educator. She is also a member of the SIUE Alumni Hall of Fame.

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