Across two days of joyful tears, stirring speeches, embraces and exultation, Rice University’s 2023 graduates celebrated the end of one chapter in their lives inside the hedges and the thrilling possibilities that lay before them in the chapters beyond.
This year’s graduation festivities were the first to be led by Rice President Reginald DesRoches, who ascended to the presidency in July 2022, and featured remarks from Karine Jean-Pierre, President Joe Biden’s White House press secretary and a key member of the administrations of both Biden and former President Barack Obama.
This year also saw the conferral of Rice’s first posthumous undergraduate degree to the family of Martel College’s Kamryn Sanamo, who died earlier this year after her yearslong fight against brain cancer.
Commencement fun kicked off May 5 with an evening event to honor Masters of Business Administration graduates from the Jones Graduate School of Business. It was followed May 6 by both the jubilant doctoral commencement ceremony, where Ph.D. graduates celebrated their ascension to the highest level of post-graduate education, and the equally joyful ceremony for recipients of advanced degrees at Tudor Fieldhouse.
The weekend culminated with the undergraduate commencement ceremony at Rice Stadium, capping off graduation celebrations for this academic year following the administration’s January decision to restructure Rice commencement going forward.
Despite the threat of showers, not one of the weekend’s four commencement events spread across Tudor Fieldhouse and historic Rice Stadium had to be altered due to weather. That said, the warm, humid conditions May 5 and 6 were a perfectly Houstonian backdrop for the festivities.
“We wanted to make sure the weather was authentic,” Rice Board of Trustees Chairman Rob Ladd quipped to the crowd Saturday night.
After graduates completed their ceremonial walk through Lovett Hall’s Sallyport and into Rice Stadium, they and their guests were welcomed by Ladd and Dean of Undergraduates Bridget Gorman, before DesRoches took to the podium to extend his congratulations and gratitude to those in attendance.
Try things ‘exceptionally hard and perhaps uncomfortable’
“We welcome you to our campus, and we thank you for lending us these outstanding graduates who have contributed so richly to our community,” DesRoches said to the thousands of parents, relatives, friends and mentors filling the stadium. He remarked on the special connection he felt to the Class of 2023, based on both sharing their early days on campus while he served as dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering, their shared experience of the height of the COVID-19 pandemic during his time as university provost and due to the presence of one graduating Sid Richardson senior particularly near and dear to his heart.
“How often does a first-year president get to hand out a degree to his baby girl? We are so proud of you, Shelby,” DesRoches said to his daughter.
He asked graduates to thank those loved ones near and far who helped them along their academic journeys before challenging them to continue pushing themselves and to try things “exceptionally hard and perhaps uncomfortable” in the pursuit of intellectual and emotional growth, imploring them to always remember the values of courage and curiosity he first espoused during his presidential inauguration.
“Because of these experiences, you are adaptable, resilient, empathetic team players, with superpowers to change the world,” DesRoches said.
Outgoing Student Association President Gabby Franklin not only congratulated the 2023 graduates on the occasion, but made special note of how much their mentorship and guidance throughout the past several years of fear, uncertainty and upheaval amid the pandemic meant to Rice’s underclassmen.
“You are the last class to experience campus before COVID, the first class to define what the new normal at Rice is, and you’re full of the most accomplished, smart and determined people I have ever known,” Franklin said.
“During your time here, you have not only built up yourselves, but a new future. You succeeded in an academically and socially rigorous environment. You brought your voices to the table in one of the most difficult periods in history, and you’ve brought back the traditions that define Rice in a new era,” she said. “I’m proud to be able to spend one more year in the legacy you made.”
‘Hope is a verb. Hope is action’
DesRoches — the first Black person and immigrant to be Rice’s president — introduced Jean-Pierre, a fellow Haitian immigrant and trailblazer in her field as the first Black woman, the first immigrant woman and the first openly gay woman to hold the post of White House press secretary.
“Although every graduation is an achievement, your path has been steeper and more difficult than most,” Jean-Pierre said. “Your class was just wrapping up your freshman year when COVID emerged and changed our world in an instant. Some of you became ill and had to suspend your studies. Others had to tend to sick family members, or step in and take care of your younger siblings when child care was no longer an option. Some had to deal with the incredible pain of losing friends and family to the deadly pandemic. Classes went virtual, to the word ‘Zoom’ that became part of our shared lexicon. And social activity — a cornerstone of the collegiate experience — was brought to a grinding halt.”
“You’ve seen the worst of us, but you’ve also seen the best of us. You lived through a moment in history where every day was unprecedented, and now you step into a world rife with new challenges and rich in new opportunities,” she said. “I want you to know that today is not only an achievement, but also a testament: a testament to your strength, to your grit and your perseverance.
“You were determined to make it to the finish line. And guess what, Class of 2023? You did.”
She quoted civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr., who told the world “‘we must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.’ And through everything we have been thorough, your class, your generation, gives me hope: infinite hope.
“Hope is one of the most powerful tools we have,” she continued. “Hope is more than an emotion, more than a feeling and certainly more than a vibe — I know you guys like to use that word,” she joked to her largely Gen Z audience. “Hope is a discipline and a practice. For me, hope is a verb. Hope is action. Because when we hope for a better world, we create a better world.”
Jean-Pierre referenced the deep font of hope that led her parents to leave their homeland of Haiti for a better life, inspired by that nation’s history as the first country in the Western Hemisphere whose enslaved people “overthrew their colonizers to create the first ever independent country of free people.” They upended their lives to flee the brutal dictatorship of François Duvalier and embarked on a globe-trotting journey that led Jean-Pierre, her parents and her siblings first to Martinique and eventually to the United States in New York City, where her parents worked tirelessly to give their children every opportunity in the world.
She cited Rice’s own reckoning with its history as an institution founded with the wealth William Marsh Rice accrued in no small part due to his enslavement of others as proof positive that meaningful, radical change is possible. “He insisted that this school would only serve the white men and women of Houston,” Jean-Pierre said. “But today, Rice University is open to all, and welcomed its first Black president, DesRoches.”
“The story of Rice University, and my story, stand with the principle that the world is malleable, and we are the ones with the power to transform it,” Jean-Pierre said. “But only if we are willing to take the chance. Hoping for more is not naive — don’t let anybody tell you that. It is brave.”
DesRoches concluded the ceremony by awarding Sanamo’s posthumous degree. “A sports medicine and exercise physiology major and member of Martel College, Kamryn passed away in January with just one semester of study remaining at Rice,” DesRoches said, as Sanamo’s friends and family watched on in the crowd. “She had been tremendously excited to complete her degree, and I’m very pleased that the faculty approved the creation of a posthumous degree policy and that we were able to confer her degree today.”
Degrees were formally conferred upon all those smiling faces lining the field. Tassels were turned and graduation caps were gleefully, triumphantly tossed in the air. The graduates and all those supporting them joined voices to belt out Rice’s alma mater, as a jubilant array of fireworks burst into dazzling color in the sky above.
“Thank you for being here to recognize these graduates and their achievements, and for all you have done along the way to help make this moment possible,” said Gorman. “And to the graduating Class of 2023: they say that every end has a new beginning. So to each of you, best wishes on your new beginning and the road ahead.”