Emmanuel College celebrated its 101st Commencement Exercises on Saturday, May 13th, adding more than 500 undergraduate and graduate students to the global network of Emmanuel alumni who are making their mark on the world.
Dr. James O’Connell—a pioneer and leader in providing high-quality and compassionate medical care as the founding physician and president of the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP) delivered the Commencement address. Emmanuel conferred an honorary degree on Mary Jo Skayhan Rogers ’77, a distinguished Trustee and alumna of the College, who has been a force for progress in melanoma research, in Catholic education, and in the expansion of educational access and opportunity for talented students at Emmanuel and beyond.
“The Heart of Boston…the Heart of this Community”
Student speakers representing Arts & Sciences and Graduate & Professional Programs for the Class of 2023 also addressed the crowd of nearly 3,000 family members, friends and guests.
Madeleine Johnson ’22, G’23 who received her undergraduate degree in history and also served as the Class of 2022 Commencement speaker, returned just one year later to offer her reflections after completing her Master of Education.
“It is no surprise we hold ourselves to such high standards,” Johnson said. “We attend Emmanuel College, an institution that is known for having students and alumni accomplish anything they put by their minds to.
“It is a beautiful thing to be young and ambitious. I know once I graduated from undergrad, I was in an all-out sprint toward all my ambitions at the finish line, ready to race toward my next adventure. However, I quickly learned that while you may be motivated to hit the ground running, everything in life also requires balance, or else you end up burning yourself out. A brisk walk has proven to be healthier than a continuous, full-blown sprint.”
Rocio Hernandez Chavez ’23, a double major in counseling & health psychology and sociology, served as the speaker for the traditional Arts & Sciences and noted, “It is truly a shame that only the people on the podium get this view. As I stand here looking at the crowd, I am met with a heartwarming sight…We might genuinely have the most welcoming community a college campus can have. We might be in the heart of Boston, but you all are the heart of this community.”
“Emmanuel College instilled in us a dedication to compassionate service, informed citizenship, and critical thinking,” Hernandez Chavez continued. “As for myself, my Emmanuel experience ignited the spark that now drives my passion to pursue a career in higher education. Similarly, I have no doubt in my mind that our Saints essence enables us to become inspiring, motivated, and knowledgeable professionals in whatever area we choose to pursue once we step out of the gates of 400 the Fenway.”
“Go out and create a thousand Emmanuels”
Dr. Mary K. Boyd addressed graduates for the first time since taking the helm as Emmanuel College President in August 2022. “What an honor it has been to come to know you over the past year, your final year as undergraduates, and my first as President,” she said. “From the start, you showed such generous warmth and welcome, an eagerness to engage, and a willingness to share what you love about Emmanuel.”
President Boyd noted that this Commencement was taking place on the Feast Day of St. Julie Billiart, who founded the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in 1804, as well as how the mission of the Sisters continues to thrive on Emmanuel’s campus.
“Students, you have both experienced and contributed to the Emmanuel spirit during your time here. Now, I urge you. Go out and create a thousand Emmanuels. Bring goodness, compassion, and service into your corporations, into your labs and startups, into your classrooms and hospitals, into your communities, and most especially into your homes. It is through you that the charism of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and the values of Emmanuel will radiate into our broader society.”
“There’s a lot to be learned with uncertainty”
During the ceremony, the College bestowed an honorary degree on Emmanuel College alumna and trustee Mary Jo Skayhan Rogers ’77. A melanoma survivor, Rogers has served on the board of directors of the Melanoma Research Alliance (MRA), the nation’s largest private funder of melanoma research. In 2016, she, along with her husband Brian Rogers, established the Mary Jo Skayhan Rogers ’77 Endowed Scholarship in honor of her 40th class reunion and the College’s Centennial.
“Mary Jo, your life exemplifies the power of gratitude and of giving back,” Emmanuel College Board Chair Margaret L. McKenna ’83 said in Rogers’ citation.
“Emmanuel taught me a lot about my faith, perseverance, and helping others,” Rogers said. “If it wasn’t for the scholarship that I received, I could never have been a student here. My husband and I are happy to have endowed a scholarship fund to help students who, like me, would otherwise have been unable to enroll, or stay enrolled, at Emmanuel.”
Dr. James O’Connell received an honorary degree from the College in 2007, and was invited as the featured speaker for his continued work with the Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program (BHCHP).
“Over nearly four decades you have ministered to countless people experiencing homelessness, providing them with superb medical care and affirming their inherent humanity and infinite dignity,” Emmanuel College Trustee William F. Kennedy, Jr. Esq. read from Dr. O’Connell’s citation. “Throughout our Boston community and far beyond, you offer a quintessential example of devotion to those living in the often-forgotten corners of our modern society.”
In his address to the graduates, O’Connell drew parallels from his college years in the late 1960s to today.
“It was a time when the civil rights and the civil liberties movements were fomenting, the Vietnam War raged,” he said. “Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated during my college years, and a man even walked on the moon. In the days before our graduation, four students were shot to death on the campus of Kent State University when they were protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, and there was an explosion of nationwide protests.
“We were utterly divided, seemed like hopelessly divided, and it was difficult not to become disillusioned as students graduating, and then it became very difficult to figure where we fit into the world. I share this with you because there are similarities to what's going on today. I think we have to really look at our divided world and find common ground.”
He also relayed his own path to BHCHP, which wound from studying theology at Cambridge University, teaching high school English in Hawaii, running a restaurant in Newport, RI, and plans to study at the New School in New York City, before finally landing in medical school at Harvard at the age of 31.
While serving as the senior residence in charge of the ICU at Massachusetts General Hospital, two of his mentors convinced him to spend a year with a new program that aides the homeless in Boston. That one year has turned into 38 years, and the BHCHP has become the nation’s largest and most comprehensive health care network for unhoused people, comprising over 600 medical and behavioral care providers at 30 sites.
“I truly cherished those years of uncertainty, and I wanted to encourage those who are not yet sure what you want to do,” he said. “There's a lot to be learned with uncertainty.”
In addition to the honorary degree recipients, several members of the Emmanuel faculty were recognized for their service to the College.
- Lisa Stepanski, Associate Dean of Humanities & Social Sciences and Professor of English, was awarded the Faculty Excellence in Service to the Community Award, which was established in 2016 in memory of Professor Christine Jaworek-Lopes. The award annually recognizes a faculty member whose actions embody the commitment to service that is at the core of Emmanuel’s mission. Dr. Stepanski was recognized for her “standout efforts to enrich Emmanuel’s whole-student educational experience and to uplift our entire College community.”
- Derek Lau, Lecturer of Biology, was honored with the Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award, which recognizes a professor who has demonstrated exceptional passion for teaching, commitment to their discipline, and dedication to students’ academic success.
- Professor of Art Kathy Soles was named Professor Emerita of Art. “Since 1988, you have been helping Emmanuel students grow as skilled and expressive artists, while developing the talent, resources, and caliber of the College’s Art Department across all media,” said Dr. Boyd. “Your inspired teaching, your generous willingness to serve on an array of College committees, and your outstanding accomplishments as an artist in your own right have earned you the respect and affection of your colleagues and generations of graduates.”
- The College also granted Emerita status to former Professor of Chemistry and Associate Dean of Natural Sciences Faina Ryvkin, for both her “above-and-beyond commitment to her students,” and her “significant role in the dramatic growth of the College’s programs in science education and research.”