Acclaimed Actor SMC Alum Mahershala Ali and State Education Superintendent Tom Torlakson Named 2016 Commencement Speakers

Two remarkable individuals—one, a Saint Mary’s alumnus and critically acclaimed actor from the world of dramatic film, television and theater; and the other, an advocate for educational excellence in the Golden State’s public school system—will address undergraduate and graduate students at the 2016 Commencement Ceremonies of Saint Mary's College of California.

Mahershala Ali (Class of '96), one of the most talented and sought-after actors in Hollywood, will deliver the commencement address for the College’s undergraduates. Tom Torlakson, superintendent of California’s public school system and leader of the California Department of Education, will offer the commencement address to Saint Mary’s graduate and professional studies students.

More than 600 students will receive their diplomas at the Undergraduate Commencement on Saturday, May 21, 2016, at 9:30 a.m. at SMC Stadium. An estimated 550 students will receive diplomas on Sunday, May 22, 2016, at 10 a.m. at the Graduate and Professional Studies Commencement at SMC Stadium.

Mahershala Ali, The Unexpected Artist

Mahershala Ali `96When he arrived at Saint Mary’s in 1992, Mahershala Ali’s focus was on the basketball court. He played for the Gaels on an athletic scholarship. However, by the time he graduated, he no longer thought of himself as an athlete, but as an artist. "In a nutshell, I came to SMC wanting the fullest experience as a student-athlete, and left wanting to experience life as an artist and well-rounded person," he said in a 2012 interview. Ali also said that performing in a play in his senior year helped him discover his calling. “My fondest memory in my time at SMC was doing 'Spunk,' a George C. Wolfe play, which features a collection of Zora Neale Hurston writings. I felt a peace during that period of time that seemed to give my life a defining purpose.”

That purpose is now obvious. The Saint Mary’s alumnus is fast becoming one of the freshest and most in-demand faces in Hollywood.

"We are tremendously proud to have Mahershala Ali, one of Saint Mary's very own, return to the College to deliver this year's commencement address,” said President James Donahue. "His journey to professional success began with important dialogues about poetry, communication, and theater with his Saint Mary's professors. From athletics to the arts, his arc of focus reflects the transformative education the College is known for. We are honored to have him address this year's graduating class.”

Currently, Ali can be seen on the award-winning Netflix original series House of Cards, now in its fourth season, where he plays the fan-favorite role of lobbyist and former press secretary "Remy Danton." Moviegoers will recall him reprising the role of "Boggs," District 13’s head of security, in last fall’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2, the fourth and final installment in the critically and commercially acclaimed Hunger Games franchise, where Ali starred alongside Jennifer Lawrence. 

Ali’s star continues to shine. He recently wrapped production on the independent film Moonlight, co-produced by Brad Pitt. And in May, he hits the big screen again in the Civil War-era drama The Free State of Jones, opposite Matthew McConaughey. His feature film credits include The Place Beyond the Pines, with Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper; Crossing Over, with Harrison Ford; and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, with Brad Pitt.

He has appeared in many television programs, including Lifetime’s The Wronged Man, for which he received a NAACP Nomination for Best Actor; Syfy's science fiction drama Alphas; and the critically acclaimed drama The 4400. On the stage, Ali made his New York Broadway debut in Kenny Leon’s Smart People. Additional stage credits include The Great White Hope, The Long Walk, Jack and Jill, Blues for an Alabama Sky, The School for Scandal, A Lie of the Mind, A Doll’s House, Monkey in the Middle, and The Merchant of Venice.  

Born in Oakland and raised in Hayward, Ali earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication from Saint Mary’s College. He made his professional debut performing with the California Shakespeare Festival in Orinda, California. Soon after, he earned a graduate degree from New York University’s prestigious acting program.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom TorlaksonTom Torlakson was re-elected to a second four-year term as California’s 27th State Superintendent of Public Instruction on November 4, 2014. As chief of the state's public school system and leader of the California Department of Education, Superintendent Torlakson applies his educational leadership and experience as a science teacher, high school coach, and state policymaker to advocate for California’s students and improve our state’s public education system.

As the head of California’s Department of Education, Torlakson directed the change to rigorous new California state standards in English, mathematics, and science. He advocated increasing investments in education and led the effort to give local school districts more flexibility to make spending decisions. He promoted the idea of meeting the needs of the whole child by expanding pre-kindergarten and after-school and summer programs, increasing access to health care and mental health services, and promoting nutritious food and regular exercise. Under his leadership, the state’s high school graduation rate rose to an all-time high of 80 percent, with a graduation rate hitting nearly 95 percent for those students in career-preparation programs.

“Saint Mary’s is honored to have State Superintendent Tom Torlakson address our graduate and professional studies students,” said President James Donahue. “His commitment to the common good is reflected in his outstanding public service and efforts to improve educational opportunities for the young people of California. We look forward to his message to our graduating students." 

Torlakson’s journey as a teacher and education advocate has led him from the classrooms of Contra Costa County’s Mount Diablo Unified School District (where he remains a teacher-on-leave), to the Antioch City Council, Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors, and the California State Senate and State Assembly. During his tenure in the California State Legislature, Torlakson acted to protect education funding, improve student nutrition and physical education, and ensure school safety. 

He also championed legislation to increase funding for textbooks, computers, and other instructional materials, and promoted efforts to close the digital divide, eliminate the achievement gap, and reduce the dropout rate. As the chair and founder of the California Task Force on Youth and Workplace Wellness, Torlakson has been a leader on banning junk food from our schools, providing healthier school meals, promoting student health and fitness, and combating diabetes and obesity among our children.

Torlakson earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in History, a life secondary teaching credential, and a Master of Arts in Education from the University of California, Berkeley. He lives in Pittsburg with his wife, Mae Cendaña Torlakson, a member of the Ambrose Recreation and Park District Board of Directors.


Michael McAlpin, Director of Media Relations
(925) 631-4222 office (925) 878-9535 cell

About SMC
The Saint Mary's College of California experience inspires learning that lasts a lifetime. For more than 150 years, the College has provided students with a rigorous education that engages their intellect and spirit, and awakens a desire to transform society. Guided by the Christian Brothers, the Catholic Church's oldest order dedicated exclusively to teaching, the College enrolls more than 4,200 students in undergraduate and graduate liberal arts and business programs. For more information visit Saint Mary's College at and just 23 miles east of San Francisco.