From Adversity to Achievement: Soka’s 2024 Commencement Honors Graduates' Journeys

June 05, 2024
2024 SUA Graduates toss their caps in the air in celebration of commencement

As a gray canopy of clouds blanketing Aliso Viejo parted to reveal a brilliant, sun-lit afternoon, the skies seemed to join in the celebration of this year’s Soka University of America graduates. More than 750 guests, including families, faculty and staff, and commencement speaker Board of Trustees Chair Stephen S. Dunham, gathered to honor the achievements of the graduating Class of 2024.

President Edward Feasel, joined by Professor Tomoko Takahashi, dean of the graduate school and vice president for institutional research and assessment, and Professor M. Robert Hamersley, dean of faculty, conferred the Master of Arts degree in Educational Leadership and Societal Change to six graduate candidates and the Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Arts to 86 undergraduate candidates.

“To the undergraduate students, it seems like yesterday when we first met by Zoom as we were in the midst of the Covid pandemic and I had just become SUA’s second president,” Pres. Feasel said. “Even though it was such a difficult time, hearing each of your bright voices and dreams was immensely inspiring. I sincerely thank you all for all that you have contributed to SUA, while pursuing your rigorous studies here.”

“This last November, our university founder Daisaku Ikeda passed away at the age of 95,” Pres. Feasel continued. “I believe it is no coincidence that you all were here as students at SUA during this critical time. As a community we all reaffirmed our commitment to carry on the work Mr. Ikeda has advanced thus far. And now, you all will embark on your next challenge to become champions of peace in your communities based on our mission to become global citizens. I know nothing would make Mr. Ikeda happier than today’s celebration of your new departure.”

Pres. Feasel reminded graduates of Mr. Ikeda’s message to them when they first entered SUA, highlighting the following passage: “A youthful life resolved to continue learning, come what may, can never be defeated. Nelson Mandela and I envisioned young global citizens uniting to uphold equality and human dignity for all. Madiba stated that one of the most difficult things in life is ‘changing yourself.’”

Pres. Feasel encouraged the graduates to return to these words in the future as they pursue their dreams.

A Call to Protect Free Speech and Engage in Dialogue

Stephen S. Dunham addresses the graduates at the 2024 Commencement Ceremony

Dunham, who played a pioneering role in laying the foundations of SUA, served as the ceremony’s keynote speaker. Drawing from his distinguished career in law and academia, his talk addressed today’s headlines head-on, exploring how principles of freedom of speech apply to the conflicts and disruptions on college campuses nationwide, and how dialogue, when combined with free speech, can help resolve these conflicts.

“To state my conclusion at the outset,” he said, “I believe that freedom of speech—the right of individuals to express their individual viewpoints, no matter how unpopular—is necessary for constructive dialogue, and constructive dialogue is, in turn, necessary for the peaceful resolution of the conflicts we face.”

Dunham discussed the relevance of free speech issues in the context of nationwide protests stemming from the war between Israel and Palestine, as well as issues of race and discrimination. He drew on historical examples and personal experiences to illustrate the importance of protecting free speech, even when it is controversial or unpopular.

He also highlighted the role of universities, including SUA, in fostering dialogue and promoting open discussion. “I would like to end with a request that you consider how you can contribute to supporting the related concepts of free speech, dialogue, and conflict resolution on our campuses and in our communities,” Dunham said, suggesting actions to consider after graduating:

  • Have a dialogue with yourself and engage with family and friends and in small groups on the substantive issues and conflicts of the day.
  • Consider whether to become involved in educational efforts in support of freedom of speech.
  • Join organizations or attend public meetings, perhaps on a university campus, where you can hear the viewpoints of people you disagree with and seek opportunities to dialogue with them.

Read the full commencement address

Voices of Appreciation and Resilience

Quang Pham ’24 speaks to fellow graduates during the 2024 Commencement Ceremony

Quang Pham ’24, who came to SUA from Hanoi, Vietnam, was the first of the three undergraduate students and one graduate student selected by graduates to speak on their behalf. Reflecting on the twists and turns in his journey toward graduation, Pham, who grew up watching the Disney Channel on his grandparents’ television with hopes of one day visiting America, said “it was truly a dream come true to pursue higher education in the U.S., this wonderland no one in my family had ever been to.”

One such turn included deciding to switch concentrations at the end of his second year to pursue Life Sciences. Pham at times felt the road to success might be too steep to climb. “Yet, with the unconditional love and support of my family, mentors, and friends at Soka,” he said, “I am so proud to tell you that I will soon begin my Ph.D. in evolutionary biology at Cornell University.” 

Flor Mejía Mendoza ’24 thanked and commended her classmates for completing their degrees and for the courage they showed in overcoming the hardships they faced along the way. She also spoke about the trials her family faced when in her first semester at Soka, during the pandemic in 2020, a hurricane drove them from their home in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Witnessing her parents’ anguish deeply affected her. “However, it was thanks to all those caring words of encouragement, support, and love from my Soka friends and family that we found so much strength,” she said, “and with an unmovable determination, we were able to leave the past behind.”

The theme of appreciation continued throughout her remarks, extending to SUA’s donors, faculty, and staff. As the first Honduran student to attend SUA, Mendoza said she will forever appreciate Soka. “Soka has opened its doors to my beloved country, Honduras,” she said, “and I hold with honor the responsibility of sharing about this institution with my Honduran community.”

Looking ahead to challenges after graduation, Emma Sherbine M.A. ’24 told her fellow graduates they have nothing to fear because they will find strength in facing such challenges together. As obstacles arise, she said, it will be important to remember the founding values and principles of their alma mater.

“My dear fellow graduates, I wish you a lifetime of happiness,” Sherbine said. “I wish you happiness that will light up even the darkest of days that lie ahead. I wish you happiness that you will in turn spread throughout the world to make the world a better place.”

Yuichi Matsuna ’24 was then called to the podium to receive the Founder’s Award, which honors a graduating undergraduate who exemplifies the university’s ideals through service and academic excellence. After accepting the award from Pres. Feasel, Matsuna, who plans to move to Tokyo for work next fall, thanked his parents, SUA’s donors, and university founder Ikeda, who he said had inspired him throughout his life.

“I know we are all going to meet in 10 years here at SUA,” Matsuna said, looking ahead to the Class of 2024’s 10-year reunion, “so let’s all continuously strive until we meet again.”