The Neag School of Education recognized graduates from the Class of 2015 during two ceremonies held the weekend of May 9 and 10, 2015. The Neag School undergraduate commencement took place at the Jorgensen Auditorium on UConn’s Storrs campus on Sunday, May 10. Commencement for Neag School graduate students, including sixth-year students, took place on Saturday, May 9, at Gampel Pavilion.
Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights, served as the keynote speaker at the Graduate School commencement ceremony. Two honorary degrees were awarded at the ceremony – one to Kennedy, and the other to Peter J. Werth Jr., president of ChemWerth, Inc., headquartered in Woodbridge, Conn.
The Neag School undergraduate ceremony featured commencement speaker Harriet Sanford, who has served as president and CEO of the NEA Foundation since 2005. Based in Washington, D.C, the NEA Foundation is committed to supporting the collaborative efforts of public school educators, their unions, school districts, and communities to focus on learning conditions that improve student performance.
An alumna of UConn, having earned a master’s degree in public administration from the College of Liberal Arts and Science in 1979, Sanford stands out as a trailblazer in public education reform, devoted to the betterment of society through access to quality education, cultural competency, and the arts.
For her role as a distinctive leader, education advocate, and global citizen, the Neag School’s dean, Dr. Richard Schwab, awarded Sanford an honorary degree, the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.
Sanford on ‘Belief’
In her commencement address, Sanford spoke in part about something that has driven her for most of her working life – teaching. She also talked about how new research on brain science uses such words as “mindset,” “grit,” “plasticity,” and “resilience” to drive home the idea that attitude matters, and that “even the most lowest-performing students can turn a page, given the right encouragement.”
She also offered another word: “belief.”
“As a teacher, you must believe in yourself, in the power of education to change lives, and in what your students can do,” she said.
Growing up with a family that faced numerous challenges, she said the common thread that propelled her forward through school was belief. “Everywhere I went, I knew I had to do two things – give my best effort and believe in myself, and for the most part, the rest would take care of itself.”
When Sanford began teaching, she quickly realized not every child was as lucky as she was. She acknowledged the growing economic disparity in the world today, but “the difference isn’t all about funding and opportunity inequities,” she said. “The deficit some children face is often purely about belief.”
She encouraged the graduates to “not shy away from being bold and outspoken, not just around matters of equity, but around teaching and creating the kind of schools where every child can succeed.
In addition, she encouraged them to not be afraid of opening themselves to others who may need support, suggestions, or a role model. “There was always someone there during complicated periods of transition in my own life,” she said. “Without their sage advice, guidance, and support, it would have been hard for me to write my next chapter.”
In her closing comments, she encouraged the graduates to believe in themselves. “You’ve had a great education and preparation for a great career. Be fierce in everything that you do. You are our best hope for the next generation.”
Changing the Game
Prior to Sanford’s speech, but before the nearly 130 graduates received their diplomas, the platform party was introduced, and the Neag Alumni Society president offered a welcome.
Carley Mooney, a graduating sport management major from Killingworth, Conn., served as the student speaker. This fall, she wlll return to the Neag School to take on a master’s degree in adult learning – while serving as a graduate assistant for the UConn women’s basketball team. As an undergraduate, she had served for four years as the student manager for the team.
Mooney began by welcoming honored guests and recognizing all the mothers on Mother’s Day, including quoting NBA All-Star Kevin Durant: “You are the real MVPs.”
She also congratulated the graduates and those who helped them along the way, noting: “Today would not be possible without the help of so many. And so to our families, our professors, our mentors, and our friends: In case we have forgotten to adequately say it over the past four years, thank you!”
Mooney noted the caliber of the Neag School, known “as one of the nation’s top education schools.”
She talked about her own experience getting into UConn, where she knew she belonged. She was accepted, but only after a few agonizingly slow months of being wait-listed. The experience, she said, was a reminder to never let anyone tell her no. “You must fearless commit to your goals and pursue them with a relentlessness that others cannot, or are not, willing to match,” she said.
Mooney concluded her remarks with the encouragement to “change the classroom, change the game, and change the world.”
In addition, Neag School associate professor Lisa Sanetti was recognized with the University Teaching Fellow Award. Each year, the University of Connecticut honors a select number of faculty members across the institution with its most prestigious award recognizing excellence in teaching at UConn.
Del Siegle, professor and head of the Department of Educational Psychology, presented the award to Sanetti.
“Dr. Sanetti has proven herself as an exceptional teacher and mentor,” Siegle said. “She is described by her colleagues with such words as ‘caring,’ ‘visionary,’ and ‘superstar.’”
“Meanwhile, her teacher evaluation scores are outstanding in every course, and in fact numerous students have been known to say that she is one of the best teachers they have had at UConn,” he added. “Her students call her ‘organized,’ ‘supportive,’ ‘thorough,’ and ‘one of the most dedicated teachers and mentors I have met.’ ”
Each set of graduates, along with their family and friends, was treated to a reception at the Gentry Building, offering a time for celebration and reflection.