On Saturday, May 7, 200 School of Social Work BSW, MSW and doctoral students gathered at Jorgenson Center for the Performing Arts to celebrate Commencement 2022. It was among the first traditional in-person commencement ceremonties for UConn since 2019.
At 1:30 pm, two Commencement marshals led students down the aisles to take their seats in the front of the auditorium. Dean Nina Rovinelli Heller opened the ceremony by asking for a round of applause to kick off the 143rd Commencement exercises at UConn. She continued with a land acknowledgment, followed by the National Anthem, led by singing group Voice of Freedom.
The Dean introduced the Provost Dr. Carl Lejuez, Commencement speaker Dr. Jody Olsen, and our Associate Deans Joanne Corbin and Michael Fendrich.
Following the Provost’s remarks were the two student speakers, who are both first in their families to graduate college. It’s tradition for the School of Social Work to have two students share one Commencement message, first in English, then in Spanish. MSW graduate Gabrielle Mitchell offered a moving speech, acknowledging the hardships of the past two years while also encouraging her fellow graduates to be fearless and to stand strong in their advocacy for their clients.
“We must make noise and push back on micro and macro levels until we witness the elimination of racial disparities and gain equal opportunities and access for people of all backgrounds and statuses,” she said. “We must ensure that we are not only advocating for the populations we serve, but that we are giving them the tools they need to advocate for themselves long after our work is done.”
We must ensure that we are not only advocating for the populations we serve, but that we are giving them the tools they need to advocate for themselves. — Gabrielle Mitchell MSW '22
Her co-Commencement speaker Julio Leon Ortiz BSW ’22 followed her with a Spanish version of the speech. (Read about both of them here.)
The keynote speaker was Dr. Jody Olsen, former director of the Peace Corps, who was returning to UConn for her fourth visit. She opened her address by saying it was 50 years ago this month that she received her MSW from the University of Maryland. “I did not know my subsequent journey, one that had me discover nations and cultures around the world and lead a non-partisan agency during a hyper-partisan U.S. presidency. My social work degree gave me the confidence and a passion for this journey,” she said.
Olsen encouraged graduates to live their social work values and to also have courage, echoing the student speakers call for fearlessness. She described how it took courage for her, years ago, as a summer intern for a federal agency in Washington, DC, to attend the March on Washington, which was rumored to possibly be unsafe. Yet she watched the marchers for two hours, admiring their courage and determination.
She went on to recount other examples of courage she witnessed while working for the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan and later during the COVID pandemic, when as Peace Corps director she had to call 7,000 volunteers home. To close her speech, she reminded students of the courage they’ve already shown serving clients and how their training would serve as the foundation for courageous work in the future. “It comes in tiny steps, drawn from inside yourselves and from others,” she said. “Your values and experience are your touchstones.”
At the conclusion of Olsen’s speech, Dean Heller began the process of announcing the graduates as they proceeded through the three steps of the ceremony: walking/hooding, presentation and conferring of degree. This year was the first time our BSW students participated in an in-person ceremony. They were followed by the MSW and doctoral students. All degrees were conferred by the Provost and Associate Deans.
Congratulations and best wishes to all of our 2022 graduates!