U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) helped Brooklyn College celebrate its 92nd commencement ceremony on Tuesday, May 30, 2017, delivering a rousing keynote address as well as accepting an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters for his groundbreaking career in politics, visionary approach to public policy and higher education, dedication to civic welfare, and commitment to equality.
More than 4,100 graduating students—2,957 baccalaureate and 1,147 master’s candidates—made the class of 2017 the largest among Brooklyn higher education institutions. For the first time in the college’s history, the ceremony was held at the Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn.
“My childhood in Brooklyn was shaped by two profound realities,” said Senator Sanders to the crowd of over 17,000 cheering students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of the college. “First, my mom, dad and older brother Larry, who graduated from Brooklyn College, lived in a three-and-a-half-room, rent-controlled apartment. As with many families who don’t have a lot of money, financial pressures caused friction and tension within our household. From those experiences, 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 or for retirement –people who face painful and stress-filled decisions every single day.”
He continued: “The second reality that impacted my life was that my father left Poland at the age of 17 from a community which was not only very poor, but from a country where Antisemitism, pogroms, and attacks on Jews were not uncommon. While my father emigrated to the United States, and escaped Hitler and the holocaust, many in his family did not. For them, racism, right-wing extremism and ultra- nationalism were not ‘political issues’; they were issues of life and death—and they died. From that experience, what was indelibly stamped on me was the understanding that we must never allow demagogues to divide us up by race, by religion, by national origin, by gender or sexual orientation. Black, white, Latino, Asian American, Native American, Christian, Jew, Muslim, and every religion, straight or gay, male or female we must stand together. This country belongs to all of us.”
Sanders is perhaps best known for his campaign for the Democratic Party’s 2016 U.S. presidential nomination. After graduating from high school in 1959, Sanders enrolled at Brooklyn College. It was here that he was introduced to the school’s vigorous political culture, occasionally joining his older brother, Lawrence (Larry) Sanders ’56, a leader in student government, at campus meetings of the college’s Young Democrats. In 1960, Sanders transferred to the University of Chicago, where his lifelong career as an activist for civil rights and progressive causes began, first as a student organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and then with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Sanders graduated from the University of Chicago in 1964 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and continued his role as an activist.
He was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. He ran two times each for the U.S. Senate and the governorship of Vermont, where he had moved in 1968. Running as an independent, Sanders was elected mayor of Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, in 1981, and defended his seat in three subsequent elections. In 1990, he ran for Congress and won, becoming the first independent elected to the House of Representatives in 40 years. In 2006, Sanders ran for office as U.S. senator from Vermont after incumbent Jim Jeffords decided not to seek re-election. Sanders won by a margin of nearly 2–1, and six years later was re-elected with 71 percent of the vote. Today, Sanders continues to be a tireless champion for the interests of working-class, middle-class, and marginalized Americans.
“We are a richer academic community because of our diversity,” said Brooklyn College President Michelle J. Anderson, who was officially installed as president at the ceremony and also presented Sanders with his honorary degree. “We believe that one of the goals of higher learning is to make us stronger citizens in this way, better able to participate in the democratic process and to defend our constitutional order.” Evoking Brooklyn College alumna Shirley Chisholm ’46, as an example to inspire the graduating class, she continued: “The candidates for graduation today are the hard-working, remarkable, and striving students that Shirley Chisholm once was. They are expanding the realm of what is possible in their lives through the transformative power of higher education.”
Also in attendance was Fredy Peccerelli ’96, who received the Distinguished Alumnus Award. Peccerelli is a human rights advocate, forensic anthropologist, and a founding member of the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG), a non-governmental organization that he and other human rights advocates opened in 1997, that exhumes from mass graves the remains of victims of Guatemala’s 36-year internal armed conflict and helps to identify them. The evidence uncovered thus far has helped convict perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity in that country, as well as aided families in locating their dead and missing loved ones.
“I appreciate this honor from Brooklyn College—especially since I missed my own commencement ceremony back in 1996,” said Peccerelli. “Instead, I was back in Guatemala finding holes, thousands of holes that contained thousands of those lives. These were not just holes; they were hidden graves. This award is also a tribute to the families who have never given up on their searches for truth and justice.”
The valedictorian of the Class of 2017, and television and radio major, Kevin LaMonte Jones, addressed his classmates by sharing his personal journey and indicated that his testimony is proof that any obstacle can be overcome.
“I tenaciously self-advocated while fighting through my academic insecurities, to rightfully gain my seat in the academy,” Jones said. “I realized that I am not confined to my history, and that my perceived limitations are actually my greatest strengths. Brokenness transformed into a brilliant new beginning.”
“If there’s one thing you gain out of this speech—one thing—let it be that your destiny is your choice,” said Franco. “What happens to you is not a product of the limitations other place upon you, but a direct result of the limits you create for yourself.”
Other distinguished guests and speakers included U.S. Senator for New York Charles E. Schumer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric L. Adams, New York City Councilman Jumaane D. Williams, Public Advocate for the City of New York Letitia James, and members of the Brooklyn College 50th Anniversary Class of 1967.
For more than 85 years, Brooklyn College has provided a rigorous and well-rounded education to generations of students. Known for its renowned faculty of academics, professionals, and artists who are among the best in their field, Brooklyn College students learn on a campus considered one of the most beautiful and culturally diverse in the country, with well-equipped facilities, studios, smart classrooms, and production and practice rooms — all with a highly affordable tuition. To learn more about the college, and how to apply, please visit the website.
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