At Albion Commencement, the Power of the Classroom Becomes Wisdom on the Quad

Educational leaders offer the Class of 2017 a few lesson plans for life

May 7, 2017

A student smiling and holding up her diploma cover.
A student in cap and gown pointing into the distance.
Students in a processional carrying flags.
A student blowing into a large instrument while another student holds it up.
The stage at commencement.
A student in his cap and gown.
A group of students and professors in their caps and gowns.
A group of students in their caps and gowns.
Caps with writing on them.

By Jake Weber

A beautiful spring afternoon on the Albion College campus formed the backdrop for 2017 Commencement and its celebration of education on Saturday, May 6. Along with recognizing some 280 graduates, Albion gave honorary degrees to educators Michael Milkie and Linda (Carmitchel) Yonke, ’75, and retired Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Inspector General Jess Womack, ’65.

President Ditzler welcomed members of the Class of 2017 by noting their impact on the demographic shift that occurred during their time on campus. He noted that some 90 percent of enrollment four years ago came from Michigan, but by this year that number had dropped to around 60 percent. Meanwhile, the number of underrepresented students on campus has made a dramatic rise. “You made them feel welcome, just as you made me feel welcome,” said Ditzler, who himself arrived on campus in 2014. “You were at the heart of this transition, and for that, for generations to come, Albion thanks you.”

Julian Vandenberg standing behind a podium.

Julian Vandenberg, ’17, delivers the senior address.

Senior speaker Julian Vandenberg, ’17, compared the seniors’ academic journey to the rigors of climbing mountains. “Today we sit atop the cliff face we have spent the last four years scaling,” he said, noting that he and his classmates certainly weren’t finished yet. “Grab your gloves, count your carabiners, and grab your helmet. You’re tougher, bolder and stronger than that version of yourself you left at the bottom of the mountain four years ago. Congratulations on cresting this peak and good luck on reaching the summit.”

Yonke, superintendent of suburban Chicago’s New Trier Township High School District 203, reminded the audience that formal education is one of the most unifying experiences for global citizens, and in the U.S., public education must be a rigorously protected institution. “We provide education not just to the talented and the compliant, but also to those who struggle and rebel,” she said. “Someone in your personal experience encouraged you, inspired you, comforted you, challenged you. Thank a teacher.”

Michael Milkie, who wasn’t planning on a career in education when he received his bachelor’s degree, eventually founded Noble Charter School in Chicago, and is today the superintendent of the Noble Network, educating 12,000 students in 17 schools. He related his profound satisfaction that Noble Network alumnus Jordan Newson is a member of Albion’s Class of 2017. “I’m so grateful to all of you for supporting Jordan and welcoming Noble students,” said Milkie, noting that more than 100 Noble students will be among Albion’s student body in 2017-18. Alluding to Newson’s path as well as his own, he closed with a quote from the movie Castaway: “You’ve always got to keep breathing, because the sun will rise and you never know what the tide will bring.”

In part of his remarks, Albion native Jess Womack, ’65, recalled a conversation with Albion chemistry professor Jack Crump and other students, worrying about their post-graduation futures. “Jack asked, ‘How many decisions in life are made with incomplete information?’ It was an off-the-cuff comment for him, but for me, it was an epiphany,” said Womack, a 2010 Distinguished Alumni Award recipient whose decisions led him to a career in law with Ford Motor and Atlantic Richfield before his pivot into the education sector. He went on to encourage the graduating seniors to embrace the next stage of life as a time for searching, experimenting and realizing they’re in the process of finding answers. “You don’t have to have it all figured out now,” he said.

“We’ve got your back” was religious studies professor Ron Mourad’s theme for the faculty farewell. From the “Valley of Exams, Mount Laboratory and the Desolate Swamp of Many Term Papers,” through the success of completing their degrees and into future achievements, Mourad noted that the Albion faculty’s commitment to the Class of 2017—first as students and now as the alumni they have become—is unwavering.

“We’re all in,” he concluded. “We care. We’re invested. You’ll forever be part of this community. And Albion—this place, these people—will forever be a part of you.”