Nearly 550 seniors graduated in the 147th commencement at Saint Mary's College on May 22. Commencement speaker Maria Elena Durazo '75, the head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, passed on greetings from President Barack Obama, whom she had seen as a guest at his state dinner for Mexico President Felipe Calderon on May 19.
"I want you to congratulate Saint Mary's basketball team, the Gaels, for its tremendous success this year in making it to the NCAA Sweet 16," Durazo quoted Obama as saying.
Durazo recalled her struggles growing up as the child of migrant farm workers, and said Saint Mary's College provided her and her parents with a comfort level because of its values and its educational mission.
"My father and mother put a lot of faith in this college without knowing much about it. But they knew the Christian Brothers would take care of their daughter -- that I would come out a learned and a good person," she said.
Durazo recalled that she engaged in activism as a college student, informed by Catholic social teaching about the dignity of man and fundamental human rights, including a just wage and the right to organize labor unions.
"I built upon the lessons learned here at Saint Mary's when I organized and led the hotel and restaurant workers union in Los Angeles," she said. "Now I apply those lessons each day as leader of workers in all sectors of the economy. One of the great joys of my life has been seeing meek and compliant men and women turn through self-organization into fearless champions for their families and into active participants in the civic and political affairs of their country and community."
Durazo, who has also been a champion of immigration reform, also addressed the tough new Arizona law on illegal immigrants, and said that labor leaders will not rest until Congress passes and Obama signs "genuine, comprehensive immigration reform, including earned legalization."
During her speech, Durazo announced the establishment of a $5,000 annual scholarship in honor of her late husband, labor leader Miguel Contreras.
Alex Branch delivered the valedictory address, saying that the graduating class got a lot more out of the College than just the courses they took, from school dances to service projects to traveling abroad.
"Saint Mary's is more than just a degree, it is an experience," Branch said. "Nowhere on my degree will it indicate that I lived in a Brothers' community in New Zealand and taught high school math for three months, nowhere will it show that I traveled to Houston to support the men's basketball team in the Sweet 16, nowhere will it show that I once climbed Half Dome in a snowstorm with one of my best friends from Saint Mary's."
On May 23, about 240 people graduated from master's and doctoral programs in the Kalmanovitz School of Education and five programs in the School of Liberal Arts: LEAP (Liberal Education for Arts Professions), Kinesiology, Graduate Liberal Studies, Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing and Master of Arts in Leadership.
State schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell delivered the commencement address.
"Each and every one of you here today represents California's future -- you will all play some role in the functioning of our great state," O'Connell said. "And no matter how small or large that role, it is an important role, because California survives and thrives thanks the efforts of not only one or group of citizens, but thanks to the efforts of all of her citizens."
O'Connell noted California's severe budget crisis, which includes a $20 billion deficit in next fiscal year's budget, and noted that many of the graduates will go on to teach in public schools.
"Whether its as a classroom teacher, parent, mentor, or big brother or big sister, you can and should play a role in educating those young people who come after you. Its always important to consider ways that we can give back to our communities and imparting knowledge to the next generation is one of the best ways of doing this," he said.
-- Erin Hallissy
Office of College Communications