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More than 1,1000 undergraduate and graduate degree candidates, along with their families and friends, gathered on Thursday, May 15, for SVA’s 39th formal commencement exercises. This year, commencement was held at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, “the world’s most famous arena,” and featured the inaugural graduating classes from the College’s MFA Design for Social Innovation and MFA Products of Design departments. For those unable to be there in person, the event also streamed live on sva.edu, and high- and low-resolution videos of the complete ceremony are available for viewing here.

The 2014 commencement featured a diverse roster of speakers. Up first were the undergraduate and graduate degree candidate speakers, Molly Ostertag (BFA Illustration) and Charles Almarez (MPS Digital Photography). (Watch this blog for items on both of them in the coming days.)

Ostertag used her time to address the opportunities and drawbacks of the rapid rate of change in today’s creative industries: “I’m sure you’ve had the experience of hearing about a teacher’s journey to success in their field, and realizing that the path they took to the top doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. However, she added, “Our generation is in a position to carve out niches and create genres that don’t even exist yet. . . . I hope you’re all as excited about the future as I am.”

Next to speak was Almarez, who was, as Provost Jeff Nesin noted in his introductory remarks, the first SVA commencement speaker to have graduated from an online program. An Army veteran who now owns and operates a gallery and a sports photography business in Clifton Forge, Virginia, Almarez took courses, participated in workshops and forged relationships with his faculty and fellow students without setting foot on campus until recently, when he arrived in New York for his program’s culminating, on-site summer session. From the podium, he offered perspective to the mostly younger crowd, encouraging them to embrace and learn from failure, and to always look at the bigger picture. “‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?,’” he asked, quoting poet Mary Oliver. “Whatever you decide, live your life well.”

President David Rhodes followed Almarez with a speech that drew attention to the often-inadequate salaries earned by the country’s educators and asked students to remember and thank the teachers that had helped and inspired them along the way. Citing a recent article by economics writer Matthew Yglesias, Rhodes noted that the top four hedge fund managers earn more than all of America’s kindergarten teachers combined. “I am sure that there are some economists who can justify such inequality,” he said. “But in what seems to me a fundamental precondition for an ethical society, there ought to be some not entirely tenuous relation between the good that one does and one’s compensation.”

As noted last month on SVA Close Up, the day’s keynote speaker and honorary degree recipient was civil rights leader, winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the country’s highest civilian honor) and longtime U.S. Congressman (D-GA) John Lewis. Taking the podium after a stirring introduction by SVA Board of Directors member Joseph Patterson, Lewis promised “to be very brief, because this day is your day, and you should enjoy it!”

True to his word, the congressman delivered a concise but wide-ranging set of remarks that were alternately humorous, inspiring, personal and civic-minded. He discussed his upbringing on an Alabama farm, where he raised chickens and devised ways to increase their productivity. He noted his SVA connection—alumnus Nate Powell (BFA 2000 Cartooning) is illustrating March, Lewis’ three-volume graphic novel memoirs—and mused on possible future collaborations with members of the class of 2014. He also mentioned a little-known fact: President Rhodes, as a college student in the 1960s, had taken part in (and been arrested for) civil rights demonstrations in Montgomery.

Mostly, though, Lewis exhorted the new graduates to be purposefully disruptive, to question the status quo and to direct their talents and energies toward fighting injustices. Referring to his own days as a student and young man—when his leadership of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and participation in the civil rights movement’s marches, lunch-counter protests and Freedom Rides led to multiple arrests and vicious beatings at the hands of the police and his fellow civilians—he said, “I got in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble.”

“‘Use your training,” Lewis continued. “Use the pen, use the pencil, use the camera, use your learning to go out and find a way to get in good trouble, necessary trouble, to make our world a better world. . . . You have a moral obligation, you have a mission, you have a mandate to get out and disturb the order of things.”

Congratulations to the SVA class of 2014.

Photos: Joseph Sinnott.


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