“The steely determination I see in this audience is a testament to you, and to Hunter College,” said Alphonso David, chief counsel to Governor Cuomo, as he addressed the Class of 2017. “You represent the best of New York. Now, as you stand on the edge, ready to dive into a world that needs you, take pride in your accomplishment.”
David had begun his speech with a personal account of Liberia’s 1980 military coup. In stark, terrifying detail, he recalled his family fleeing gunmen who invaded their home in the middle of the night; the imprisonment of his father, Monrovia’s democratically elected mayor; the assassination of his uncle; and, during the family’s house arrest, his immense pride as his mother, facing rampaging troops and a gun to her head, barred the door and protected the women inside.
The family eventually found asylum in the U.S. But here, David faced new kinds of assault – first, racial epithets and exclusion by his young classmates, and years later, a work environment that drove him to be a closeted gay lawyer.
“Each of you in this room will face defining moments. You will find the power of your own fear, and find the great power of your own courage,” he told the graduates, adding, “Be unabashedly you, without denigrating anyone else. Be proud of who you are: you the immigrant, the woman, the Muslim, the Jew, the LGBT person, the single mother, the single father, the person living on public assistance, the person with HIV.” At the same time, he acknowledged that by gaining entry to Hunter and earning their degrees, the graduates had already chosen not to be defined or defeated by difficulty or circumstance.
The heroic achievements of a number of graduates had already been highlighted by President Raab. In her welcoming remarks, she also noted that the highly diverse Class of 2017 represented more than 150 countries, and that family members had traveled from five continents to celebrate that afternoon. Looking ahead, she asked the graduates to commit themselves to the Hunter motto, Mihi Cura Futuri (The Care of the Future is Mine), with a reminder that Thomas Hunter began building a great college because he believed in his own obligation to the future.
In a moment that paid tribute to another historic Hunter figure and to three new graduates, Dina Buitrago, Hajaru Hamza and Saipriya Iyer were officially named Hunter’s first Women in Science Mildred Dresselhaus Scholars. Dresselhaus, the renowned physicist and 2014 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, always credited her teachers and mentors at Hunter College High School and Hunter College for her resolve and success in a challenging field so unwelcoming to women.
Commencement honoree Sandra Wilkin, a CUNY trustee and Hunter alumna, remembered how well the College taught her about “the value of hard work and perseverance” – wisdom that enabled her to succeed as a woman in the construction industry. She also expressed her pride in CUNY’s being “the most diverse university in the world.”
The afternoon’s final major address came from valedictorian Daniela Mikhaylov, who was speaking not for herself alone but also for the Class of 2017’s four other valedictorians: Victoria Lau, Qin Lin, Rina Schiller and Clarissa Torres. Mikhaylov began by mentioning her background as the daughter of Uzbekistani immigrants who fled anti-Semitism to give their children a better life. Now headed to the Icahn School of Medicine and a career as an oncologist, she thanked Hunter for helping her know for sure that medicine was her calling, for professors who “have pushed us beyond what we thought was possible,” and for classmates she predicts will be her lifelong friends.
“Have faith in yourself, and know that as a Hunter graduate, you have the tools to succeed,” she told her fellow graduates. “As Hunter Hawks, we are destined to fly high!”
Click here to view photos from Hunter’s 215th commencment.