Believing in the Class of 2014

Believing in the Class of 2014

Gov. Tom Kean and former Rutgers football player Eric LeGrand share inspirational message during commencement

students at commencement
Joy was in the air on commencement day as Rutgers celebrated its graduates – the largest class in the university's 248-year history.
Photo: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University
One spoke about unity, building bridges and understanding. The other encouraged his fellow graduates to never give up no matter what obstacles they face.

Two revered speakers addressed the Rutgers Class of 2014 Sunday – former Gov. Tom Kean and Eric LeGrand, a Rutgers football player who was paralyzed from the neck down during a 2010 game against Army at MetLife Stadium.

Both offered graduates an inspirational message during the university’s commencement at High Point Solutions Stadium in Piscataway: work together to change the world.

Kean, who served as chair of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, warned against the political divide that is growing in Washington and called on graduates to “help restore the fabric of our society.

"Otherwise, it’s me on CNN and you on Fox and never the twain shall meet,’’ said Kean, the two-term Republican governor and former Drew University president. 

He called for building civility and finding common ground. “I urge you to honor your Rutgers degree,’’ Kean said. “Turn it into a career of integrity and achievement. Use it to improve the world around you. Get to know people and understand them.’’

Robert Barchi and Eric LeGrand
Eric LeGrand, a labor relations major, receives his diploma from Rutgers President Robert Barchi. LeGrand was among this year's estimated 16,431 graduates.
Photo: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University
When LeGrand appeared on stage in his motorized wheel chair to address his classmates, he received a loud and extended standing ovation. He brought the crowd back to the day he suffered a life-altering injury. Like everything he has done since then, his words were meant to inspire.

The doctors had told his mother he would never breathe on his own, eat solid food or have a normal life, LeGrand told the crowd of 35,000. He proved them wrong and on Sunday received his own diploma from university President Robert Barchi. 

“If you put your mind to it, anything is possible in this world,’’ he said, as he urged fellow graduates to stay positive in the face of any adversity they encounter in the next phase of their lives.

“Just know that every single day when I get out of bed I try to walk again and I continue to fail and fail but that has not stopped me,’’ LeGrand said.

He said he knows that one day he will walk down the stairs, drive his own car and be able to take care of himself. “I hope you guys continue to believe in me, believe in yourselves because we are all going to change the world together,’’ LeGrand said.

Kean bestowed special recognition on LeGrand as they shared the podium. He had declined the $35,000 honorarium and instead asked Barchi to use the funds to create a scholarship for the Class of 2014 in LeGrand’s name.

The words of both speakers resonated with students and graduates who attended the ceremony.

Commencement speaker Gov. Tom Kean called for an end to divisiveness and a return to civility. Kean requested that his $35,000 honorarium be donated back to the university for a scholarship in honor of LeGrand and the Class of 2014.
Photo: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University
“His story is amazing and it really makes you think,’’ said Marquis Davis of Paulsboro, who graduated with a degree in psychology from the School of Arts and Sciences. “It is going to be tough out there for us, but when we look back at what he had to say and how he can look optimistically to the future after being paralyzed it will help us get through.’’

Austin Tamutus, a junior from Bordentown who performed as a member of the Glee Club during commencement, was inspired by the former governor’s words. “He had a remarkable grasp of the state of affairs in our government,’’ Tamutus said. “He was invested in everyone’s future, not just a partisan future, and it’s inspirational to hear that everyone has to do this together.’’

Kean and LeGrand spoke to the largest graduating class in Rutgers history, and the first since integration with most of the former University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey(UMDNJ).

An estimated 16,431 graduates – including students from the former UMDNJ – will receive degrees from Rutgers this year. They include approximately 10,364 baccalaureate degrees and 6,067 master’s degrees, doctorates (including professional doctorates), and one specialist of education. In addition to Sunday’s ceremony, Barchi will also confer degrees this week in Newark and Camden.

Barchi said the faculty is certain the graduating class is well prepared to meet any challenges ahead and change people’s lives.

"In the midst of so many challenges and so much change in the world, there has never been a Rutgers graduating class better prepared to impact society, to shape policy and to make a difference than the Rutgers Class of 2014,’’ Barchi said.

On Sunday, Barchi also presented honorary degrees to Gerald C. Harvey, outgoing chair of the university’s Board of Governors (Doctor of Humane Letters) and Richard Leakey, renowned paleoanthropologist, public servant and environmentalist (Doctor of Science).

For many graduates, Sunday marked an exciting new beginning, but it was also a bittersweet moment as the reality set in: They were leaving the university they had considered home.

For Eric Martinez of New Brunswick, a lingering sadness hung over his graduation day because his mother was not there. She passed away after battling cancer during his junior year. “This would have meant the world to her,’’ Martinez said. Taking family photos during graduation was especially difficult without her. “I’m looking on the bright side, she is an angel,’’ Martinez said. “I know she is looking down and she is proud.’’

Darshana Parikh, of Clementon, was filled with mixed emotions Sunday.‘’I’m not as happy as I thought I would be,’’ said Parikh, who graduated with a degree in biology. “It’s separation anxiety,’’ Parikh said. “Where else can you get pizza at 2 a.m. . . . I am going to miss being here.’’