GAMBIER — Kenyon College’s 191st commencement ceremony featured the first outdoor graduation in six years, held Saturday on Samuel Mather Lawn. The Class of 2019 had a total of 434 seniors receive bachelor of arts degrees conferred to them in fields ranging from anthropology, art history and biochemistry to mathematics, psychology and physics.
The commencement exercises were a testament to academic accomplishments. The ceremony featured dozens of students who stood to be recognized as members of the Beta Chapter of Ohio of Phi Beta Kappa; collegiate honors bestowed including 113 cum laude, 93 magna cum laude, and 38 summa cum laude recipients; and two students serving as valedictorians, philosophy student Mastiff Aziz, and mathematics student Seth Ellery Colbert-Pollack. The two earned 4.0 grade point averages throughout their Kenyon experiences.
Kenyon’s day of standout successes included seven graduates from Knox County: Tobias Baumann, Mount Vernon, anthropology and religious studies (double major); Lelia Dusthimer, Danville, international studies and Fulbright Scholarship recipient; Shanna Hart, Gambier, anthropology; Austin Hulse, Mount Vernon, physics and mathematics (double major); Gordon Loveland, Mount Vernon, music; Danaye Nixon, New Albany (Mount Vernon High School graduate), mathematics; and Robert Williams, Gambier, economics.
Kenyon’s ceremony also featured welcoming remarks by President Sean Decatur, which were preceded by the conferring of honorary degrees on two retiring faculty members, Miriam P. Dean-Otting and Ruth W. Dunnell, as well as an honorary degree for legendary jazz performer Wynton Marsalis, a 9-time Grammy Award winner. Marsalis, a trumpeter, composer, bandleader and educator from New Orleans, won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for “Blood on the Fields,” a jazz oratio concerning a couple moving from slavery into freedom. Since 1987 he has served as the artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and has made it his personal mission to provide jazz-related education to thousands of music students across the country.
Marsalis has previously performed at Kenyon College in 1991 and maintains connections to the college through friendships made with some of its graduates. In his keynote address, he referenced Murray Horwitz, Class of 1970, who encouraged him to reconnect with Kenyon. He also referenced Kenyon alumni Mark Rosenthal, Class of 1973, and Barry Schwartz, Class of 1970.
Marsalis told the soon-to-be Kenyon graduates that what they have learned, prior to their degrees conferred, came from relationships built over four years and lessons imparted to them that will deepen in meaning as their lives mature. To persevere no matter what life brings is a life well-lived, he offered.
“Some of the most profound things that will happen to you will not be your choice,” Marsalis said. “Your only choice will be how you choose to rebound, how you choose to stand up — not (if) you will stand up but how you will stand up.”
No life is perfect, Marsalis offered, nor is it intended to be. But being in the present, strong of heart, mind and will for one’s family and loved ones, doing one’s best to meet challenges, is the way to live life.
“Look past dysfunction,” Marsalis said. “If you don’t have dysfunction, you’re not alive. This is the nature of life.”
Student comments on the graduation stage came from Sriya Laalitha Chadalavada, an economics major from Cincinnati. She looked at Kenyon as a place where young, like-minded students became fast friends as they often carried on conversations until 3 a.m. “with barely a second thought.”
“But actually, I think what we will miss the most are the people we have surrounded ourselves with in the community,” she said. “I can feel myself missing them already.”
The college experience is, at the end of four years, about sacrificing close personal relationships on a daily basis to go out in world, fan out, and pursue life and career aspirations, Chadalavada said. But she won’t have to worry about her next stop — she has received a Fulbright Scholarship and will be teaching English in Malaysia.
Another student who will also be teaching English in Malaysia on a Fulbright Scholarship is the aforementioned Dusthimer, the first Danville High School graduate to do so. She will precede that challenge with a trip to Nepal this summer, where she will be conducting a service project in rural areas to increase women and young girls’ access to health services including hygiene products.
Dusthimer is already a world traveler, having spent a semester in New Delhi, India, studying Hindi and Indian foreign policy. She also spent a spring semester at Oxford University’s Keble College in England, studying international relations, and received the U.S. State Department’s Gilman Scholarship to fund a summer of Arabic study in Rabat, Morocco.
Asked what she learned most during her Kenyon-provided student trips abroad, she said, “More than anything, I learned to keep an open mind and be ready to take on any new adventure that comes my way … I hope to attend graduate school for international relations in the near future.”
Dean-Otting and Dunnell were both lauded by fellow faculty members for their academic accomplishments. Dean-Otting was a teacher and scholar in the field of Judaic studies, and was the Donald L. Rogan Professor of Religious Studies. She was the first Kenyon College alumna who went on to teach at her alma mater and be awarded tenure and promotion to full professor. Dunnell, a professor of Asian history, came to Kenyon in 1989. A prolific author, her books have included “The Great State of White and High,” and the acclaimed biography, “Chinggis Khan: World Conqueror.” Her newest work explores the power of Mongol women. Dunnell is one of Kenyon’s founders of its Asian Studies program, which includes 23 affiliated faculty members.