As I think back to the thousands of graduates, rejoicing with their friends and family members before, during, and after the five commencement ceremonies our campuses hosted in June, among my favorite recollections is that of three special guests from widely differing backgrounds who also counted the experience as one of the high points of their lives.
It is very rare for the California State University Board of Trustees to award three honorary doctorates from a single university, but trustee Jeffrey Bleich said one of the reasons his fellow board members decided to do so was to recognize that Cal State East Bay’s faculty, students, and staff have made the university “a jewel of the system.”
When you receive an honorary doctorate from the board of trustees of the largest university system in the nation – the CSU - you’re bound to feel a sense of awe and gratitude. Antioch businessman and philanthropist Leo Fontana, best-selling author Dr. Khaled Hosseini, and Juniper Networks chairman of the board Scott Kriens all were appreciative of the honors we gave them, to be sure, but in their acceptance addresses they were just as eager to stress to graduates the importance of their Cal State East Bay experiences.
That these remarks came from individuals with East Bay ties –– two from immigrant families and another raised just down the road from Hayward ––emphasized once again how the tremendous diversity of the region has contributed to our reputation not only as the people’s university, but also as one standing for academic excellence and access.
Dr. Hosseini, acclaimed author of “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” has spent more than 20 years in the East Bay. He told graduates at commencement ceremonies for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences that it was “fitting” that his award came from the Bay Area’s “cultural and educational powerhouse.”
Receiving an honorary doctor of fine arts degree, Hosseini, a 44-year-old physician whose first book sold 10 million copies, acknowledged the achievement and success inherent in Cal State East Bay graduates, but urged them to take advantage of earning a degree from a university of such distinction.
“You are young and resourceful and educated and capable and talented and you can always help, be it as an individual or as part of a family, a congregation, a community,” he told graduates. “You can change things. Everything you do matters, and nothing that you do is too small when you help a fellow human being on this planet whose only sin is to be less lucky than you.”
While Hosseini’s family roots are in Afghanistan, the heritage of longtime Antioch philanthropist and businessman Leo Fontana goes back to Italian immigrants who came to the East Bay several generations ago. During commencement ceremonies at the Concord Campus, where he received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree, he was repeatedly referred to as one of the most significant forces in the development of Antioch and eastern Contra Costa County, and an inspiration because of his countless philanthropic efforts.
“One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the importance of being involved in your community,” the 85-year-old Fontana told graduates arrayed before him outdoors at a sunny Saturday commencement ceremony.
Even though the graduation ceremony was Mr. Fontana’s first visit to the “beautiful Concord Campus,” he told the audience that he was well-aware of its impact on the growth of Contra Costa County and the importance of university access to its more than 1 million residents.
“There are tremendous opportunities here,” he said. “This campus will continue to grow in the future.”
Although Scott Kriens was addressing those at the commencement ceremony for the College of Business and Economics on the Hayward Campus, the 1979 Cal State East Bay alumnus was clearly directing his remarks to all of this year’s graduates when he challenged them to “use the invaluable education you have earned here at this university.”
What was intriguing to me about the address by the 51-year-old Silicon Valley pioneer was his encouragement to graduates to act on the impulse to innovate, an approach that also has become emblematic of a university culture here which has led to organizational transformation as well as academic success.
“I wish for all of you to fully recognize and harness the power of your own intention,” he told a stadium full of graduates and their families at the Hayward Campus. “Collectively, we have over 4,800 examples from this great university with proof of that power today. Each of you has a deeply personal example that is compelling: your own success, your degree with your name on it.”
Ultimately, commencement ceremonies are more than a celebration of that individual student success: they are a crystallization of what we mean when we talk about the importance of the university’s “regional stewardship.” The holders of three new honorary doctorates easily grasped that concept, and we can count on them to be ambassadors who will help us further polish this “jewel.”
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