Utah State University awarded degrees to 6,640 students at the school’s 163rd commencement Thursday morning.
After their traditional walk from the Quad, the graduates were welcomed into the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum arena by triumphant music from the USU Wind Orchestra. Friends and families cheered as their graduates appeared smiling and waving on the jumbotron.
As the students filed into their seats, President Noelle Cockett took to the podium to conduct her last commencement ceremony before stepping down after six years in the position.
Cockett beamed as she recognized distinguished guests and graduates, calling special attention to the fact that more than 18% of the graduating class identified as first-generation college students. While listing off more student accomplishments, she reminded the audience that Utah State University has “the best ice cream in the state.”
Take risks, embrace diversity and find your purpose
The commencement address was given by Anthony Paul Jones, a Utah State alum who is now the president of Fort Valley State University, a historically Black college in Georgia. Jones was also awarded an honorary doctorate in education.
In his address, Jones pointed out that the class of 2023 is graduating into a world where culture wars are “raging,” and where “remaining on the sidelines and simply going with the flow won’t suffice.” He called upon the graduates to fight for equality, referencing the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Jones also highlighted three key “lessons in humanity” he learned throughout his life’s journey. First, he emphasized the importance of taking risks, despite the possibility of failure.
“Do not be afraid to fail because failure is often the first step towards success,” he said.
Second, Jones talked about the progress that can come from embracing diversity.
“This includes not just racial and ethnic diversity, but also diversity of thought, background politics, religion and experience. Only by working together can we build a better world for ourselves and a future generation,” he said.
Jones’ final lesson was that finding purpose will always outweigh material success.
“As you move forward as a college graduate, I urge you to find work that fulfills you, makes a difference in the world and aligns with your values. Be willing to seek out the things that will make a real difference and something that you would want to be remembered as your legacy.”
More honorary doctors
The university awarded honorary doctorates to Elder Gary Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, former Utah Rep. Mia Love and real estate developer and philanthropist Jonathan Bullen. Short videos were shown with messages from each of the recipients.
In Elder Stevenson’s video, the general authority and Utah State alum reminded graduates of the words on the plaque in the Merrill-Cazier Library: “With all that getting, get understanding.”
“And that understanding is treating other people with dignity, with kindness,” he said.
Love, the first Black person elected to Congress from Utah, talked about the valuable connections she made across party lines, being the only Republican in the Congressional Black Caucus.
“True leaders put themselves in uncomfortable positions or situations and make themselves comfortable,” she said.
Utah State’s class of 2023
The graduates then heard from valedictorian Emma Larson Geary, who graduated at 51⁄2-months pregnant, with a double major in communication studies and psychology and a minor in Chinese.
Larson Geary talked about the valuable human connections that can result from persevering through challenges. She spoke through tears as she opened up about her own mental health, describing a monthslong depressive episode in which she felt all hope was lost.
Larson Geary said she was able to feel like herself again when she found the strength to reach out for help and urged her fellow graduates to do the same in their own moments of loneliness and despair.
This message especially resonated with graduate Cassidy Garrett, a human development and family studies major, who said she’s also struggled with depression throughout college.
“So it’s been slow going, not as many credits each semester, but I’ve been able to persevere and get through it with a lot of help from my husband and my family,” Garrett said.
President Cockett’s last goodbye
In an address that was not on the program, board of trustees chairman Kent Alder paid tribute to Cockett, who will step down in July.
Alder listed Cockett’s accomplishments in office, including the establishment of Utah’s only college of veterinary medicine; creating the Institute of Land, Water, and Air; achieving the highest recognition for research possible; and instituting a Division of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
A first-generation college student herself, Cockett was always determined to support students who came from less privileged backgrounds, Alder said. He also praised Cockett’s ability to connect to students on a personal level, saying she often greets them with a smile and a hug.
Cockett’s voice trembled as she gave her final remarks, thanking the graduates for letting her be a part of their education.
“I’m so proud to be an Aggie and will continue to be for the rest of my life,” Cockett said. She patted her heart and made the Utah State hand sign as the arena gave her a standing ovation.