Like his fellow Grove City College alumni, Brandon Conaway looks forward to the next chapter in his life, but he also cherishes the memories and friends he made over the past four years.
“They have become irreplaceable,” the Huntingdon man said after Saturday’s commencement ceremony.
Conaway was one of about 500 students who graduated from Grove City College this weekend. Saturday’s festivities got off to a rainy start – the event was held outside in the Quad – but the sun came out as the last few diplomas were conferred.
“I just love being here,” Mary Pfeil of Girard, Pa., said before the ceremony started.
She was anxious to see her granddaughter, Mackenzie Burbage of Telford, Pa., receive her English degree.
“I’m very proud of her,” Pfeil said.
The umbrellas came out as the graduates took their seats and GCC President Paul J. McNulty welcomed everyone to the school’s 139th commencement ceremony.
“We cannot tell you what the next hour will bring,” he joked about the weather.
He said it has been a great privilege and joy to work with the class of 2019; he hopes they have learned about how education can open your mind and heart.
“You’re an extraordinary group of people...You have been blessed with a Christ-centered education,” McNulty said.
He thanked the students’ friends and family for their support and said he can’t wait to see how God uses their talents in the world.
McNulty introduced the student speaker Bryce Kulik, a mechanical engineering major from Morristown, N.J., who has a special heart for ministry and leadership.
Kulik has been active on and off campus, and he recently started M6 Ministries, a partnership between Grove City Community Food Pantry and Bon Appétit, the school’s food service provider.
Certain food that Bon Appétit doesn’t sell on campus is donated to the food pantry for distribution in the Grove City area.
“Bryce’s energy is contagious,” McNulty said.
Kulik said he hopes that he has left an impact on as many people as possible. He addressed his love of Breen Student Union, and mentioned Kitty Purry, a cat who is often spotted around the campus. The black-and-white feline made a brief appearance Saturday morning before the ceremony began.
“This entire campus has been like a loving relationship,” Kulik said.
He believes that the college changes the students for the better and vice versa, and that the graduates are well prepared for the real world after experiencing four years of ups and downs.
McNulty introduced guest speaker U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican from Nebraska. Sasse is a bestselling author and deeply rooted in his faith, McNulty said.
“This is a glorious place,” Sasse said of the Grove City College campus.
He apologized for the rain, noting that he seems to bring bad luck when he speaks at graduation ceremonies. He recalled one event that was cut short by a tornado.
While his career centers on politics, Sasse said that he decided to avoid political talk during Saturday’s commencement.
He told the alumni that they’re living in a world that’s disrupted by things that are radically transforming, like technology and the economy.
That’s why “roots” are important, especially since many of the graduates will change jobs and towns every few years.
The pace of that change is collapsing families and stable friendships. People need to take their focus off of social media, realizing that when you love or care for someone, you can’t help but be happy or upset for them when they experience certain emotions, Sasse said.
Loneliness is a big health crisis in the United States, and it can sometimes lead to suicide or substance abuse. There’s a need to “build habits of long-term love.”
The alumni will be facing a lot of choices and opportunities, which can be scary, but they have their faith and beliefs to help guide them, he said.
People don’t need more money or more freedom to make them happy; contentment comes from giving thanks to God for what you already have.
“Enjoy the good things which come the next season of your life,” Sasse said.
Saturday’s ceremony included honorary degrees conferred to Sasse and the Rev. Rufus Smith IV. Sasse received a doctor of humane letters degree, and Smith, a doctor of divinity degree.
Smith, who spoke at the college’s baccalaureate service on Friday night, is the senior pastor of Hope Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Memphis, and founder of the Memphis Christian Pastor’s Network.
Both Conaway and Kiersten Jones said they were inspired by Smith’s speech; he talked about sometimes having to “give up the reins.”
“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” said Conaway, a psychology major who will be entering the doctorate program at Duquesne University.
Jones is from Michigan and studied history and secondary education. She is planning to start a law firm fellowship in Virginia Beach. She was joined after the ceremony by her friend Lilianna Totten, who majored in elementary and special education.
“I want to have an impact on future generations,” said Totten, who is from New Jersey.
Both women thanked their loved ones for their support. Totten said she enjoyed the guest speakers.
“They encourage me to keep going,” she said.
Gretchen Wilson of Butler, who majored in English communications and secondary education, said she’ll be looking for a teaching job, and she’ll miss the GCC faculty members.
“I had a lot of professors that really helped guide me,” she said, also thanking her family, boyfriend, and her high school teachers.
She added that she’s keeping Sasse’s “roots” advice in mind.
“I’m a very firm believer in that,” Wilson said.