Members of the largest and most diverse graduating class in George Mason University history were urged Friday at the 52nd annual Spring Commencement to determine how they will make a positive impact on the world, no matter their chosen field of study.
The featured speaker, United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed, called on Mason graduates to be sources of ideas and innovation to confront global challenges as “the leaders and torchbearers our world so desperately needs.”
“There are engineers among you who can help to build climate-resilient infrastructure based on renewable energy,” said Mohammed, a key figure in formulating the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to address global crises. “The academics and researchers that can choose projects that improve the lives of millions of people while safeguarding our resources. We need business people who understand that unless we invest in the green economy, or even the blue economy, we will have a very gray future.
“Beyond working life, beyond that 9 to 5, you are one of the 7.5 billion on our planet. And there are many ways to make a difference: from giving your time and energy to causes that matter to you, to advocating, hearing your voice loud and standing up for what you know is right.”
Commencement at EagleBank Arena honored 9,296 degree earners representing 81 countries and 48 states. Half of the nearly 6,000 undergraduates were from minority populations, the highest percentage in university history.
President Ángel Cabrera referred to Mason as “a university of strivers, who don’t take their success for granted but work hard to achieve it.” Cabrera also offered a prominent example of the power of Mason and its alumni base. After tassels moved Friday, that base now tops 200,000 graduates.
Cabrera noted the Mason-educated teachers leading Northern Virginia’s nationally regarded K-12 classrooms, the nurses, artists, policy analysts, accountants and attorneys who—with their Mason degrees—all infuse and lead a dynamic region.
“This past year, one of the largest and most iconic companies in the world, Amazon, chose to locate in our neighborhood after carefully studying hundreds of other cities in North America,” Cabrera said. “Amazon said they wanted to go where the talent was, which means you are the reason why they came here!”
Mason graduates more students in computer-related fields than any university in the state, and that trend continues with the class of 2019, in which 34 percent of undergraduates, and 26 percent of master’s and doctorate graduates, are in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Three of the top six undergraduate majors are information technology, information systems and operations management, and computer science.
In addition, 34 percent of undergraduates reporting parental education level say they are first-generation college graduates. That includes student speaker Erik Truong, a government and international politics major from Portland, Oregon. He expressed deep admiration for his Vietnamese immigrant parents, who worked minimum wage jobs to provide opportunities for their two children.
“They knew that, in the end, spending sleepless nights studying English and passing a civics test would be worth it,” Truong said. “I stand here as the personification of my family’s long nights of blood, sweat and tears,” he added, drawing a rousing ovation. “I stand here today seeing their dream more clearly than ever.”
Rector Tom Davis presented Mohammed with an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters and awarded former rector and Mason alumnus Joseph A. Heastie the Mason Medal for his extensive service in various roles at the university.
Cabrera also honored five outstanding faculty members with the annual Presidential Faculty Excellence Awards, the highest faculty award at Mason.
Frederic Paul Bemak and Rita Chi-Ying Chung, professors in the Counseling and Development Program within the College of Education and Human Development, each received the United Bank Presidential Medal for Faculty Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion for their international humanitarian efforts as the founders of Counselors Without Borders.
Tyler Cowen, Holbert L. Harris Professor of Economics and director of the Mercatus Center in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, received the Beck Family Presidential Medal for Faculty Excellence in Research and Scholarship in recognition of his contributions as a thought leader and influential author and blogger.
Christianne Esposito-Smythers, professor in the Department of Psychology and director of the Clinical Psychology Doctoral Program in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, received the Earle C. Williams Presidential Medal for Faculty Excellence in Social Impact for her work designing and testing treatment and prevention programs for adolescent suicidal behavior.
Kathleen E. Wage, associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computing Engineering within the Volgenau School of Engineering, received the John Toups Presidential Medal for Faculty Excellence in Teaching for her incorporation of active learning in her instruction.