Class of 2021’s Resilience Celebrated in Virtual Commencement Ceremony

June 02, 2021
Abigail Meyer in cap and gown
Student speaker Abigail Meyer ’21

Called to action by a 92-year-old American civil rights icon, the Soka University of America 2021 graduates celebrated from worldwide locations in a virtual commencement attended by hundreds of students, family, faculty, staff, and friends. The May 28 event honored the university’s 17th undergraduate class and the sixth class of the master’s program in Educational Leadership and Societal Change.

In a recorded video message, the Reverend James M. Lawson Jr. spoke with the eloquence that once inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to describe him as the leading theorist and strategist of nonviolence in the world.

“I am deeply impressed by the fact that Soka University seeks to help each of the students who comes here to become a global citizen, a human being who exploits human creativity and who then shapes their work around how they can help the creative human being to emerge through their work and play through their families and the various vocations that they adopt,” Rev. Lawson said.

Inside each student is a singular “life force” or “soul force” that calls them to discovery and implementation. “Exploit it, because in exploiting it, you tap the most creative force of the universe,” Rev. Lawson said, referring to a core teaching of Gandhi.

In harnessing the power of their imagination, each graduate “contributes not only to the inward and outward journey of your own being at levels of imagination you’d never understood” but also lives in a manner that will “enable the human race to retrieve its most noble visions of life.”

Humans wrongly exploit power to dominate others through violence, which Rev. Lawson called “perhaps the greatest enemy to human rights today.” Instead, he urged the audience to tap “the power of love to see your own life transformed and see the lives of other people transformed.”

“That is your homework, the rest of your days, cultivating the heart, the soul, the mind, the capacity of life,” Rev. Lawson said. “Living out the meaning of what it is to see your neighbor as you see yourself. This piece of homework, you must do every day until eternity.”

President Feasel Offers Gratitude and Praise

President Edward M. Feasel expressed deep appreciation for everyone who supported the graduates’ journey, and scholarship donors including the Makiguchi Foundation and Lei Loi Tak Memorial Scholarship Program.

Addressing the graduates directly, Pres. Feasel noted they were leaving SUA at a time of great uncertainty in the world. “I am confident, however, at SUA, you have developed the robust skills to tackle any challenge and to create harmony with any challenger that tries to derail you,” he said. “Your persistent humanistic efforts at dialogue will continue to be key toward achieving this end.”

“As long as you are not defeated at any single moment and strive toward your vision, I firmly believe you will ultimately be victors in life. Please always advance with the spirit of Soka, or value creation, striving to expand your own capabilities while working for the benefit of others in your local, national, and global community.”

Pres. Feasel noted that the university’s 20th anniversary coincided with a global pandemic and movement for social justice, which sparked a recommitment to its founding principles, particularly to deepen the culture and ethic of global citizenship in our community.

“An important part of that effort has been issues raised by our students of color,” he said, “some who are graduating today who have made every effort to point out areas where SUA needs to improve and build upon. I thank the students of the Black Student Union and the Students of Color Coalition in particular for all of your work and efforts during your time at SUA.”

Ecstatic Graduates From Around the Globe

Along with the diplomas mailed to graduates before the ceremony, they received branded gifts from Soka University of America founder Daisaku Ikeda: a photo frame, a commemorative card, an art postcard set, and a book he co-authored with Anwarul K. Chowdhury, “Creating the Culture of Peace: A Clarion Call for Individual and Collective Transformation.”

As “Pomp and Circumstance” played, the ceremony picked up energy as each graduate was celebrated by name. Students had submitted quotes before the ceremony, and some alluded to a rollercoaster yet hopeful senior year.

“It was the best of times,” wrote Arnold Too, channeling Charles Dickens, “it was the worst of times.”

“Relationships are like a rope,” wrote Karolis Batuchtinas. “If you cut it and tie it back together, it brings both ends of the rope closer to each other.”

The students’ life force shone in brief video messages. Many recorded themselves in cap and gown. Rodas Dubie Bekele was among those who walked as if on a commencement stage and not many miles from campus. Others, like Kelsey Castanho, moved their tassels; Tanner Montagriff-Peck tossed his mortarboard in the air.

“We made it. Peace out!” said Iuna De Sousa. Warren Shinichi Feasel’s photo included his dog.

Some students showed off their diplomas and thanked their family, friends, classmates, SUA mentors, faculty, and staff. “My stronghold” is what Kristen Michala Storms called her support circle. Others specifically thanked SUA groups such as the LGBT team and swim team for support.

The Zoom chat quickly got busy sending off the graduates with warm felicitations in many languages.

Student Speakers Describe Overcoming Barriers

The wisdom, courage, and compassion treasured by the SUA community do not exist in isolation, but during a pandemic year students had to find creative ways to achieve Soka’s educational goals of learning the importance of service to others, to the natural world, and to the great cause of peace and freedom.

Praise for that resilience also came from their peers who performed and spoke at commencement. “This past year has been really tough considering it’s your last year, and it was all online, but we’re sending you these messages to show our immense gratitude and appreciation for all of your hard work,” said Saanika Joshi ’23. A large ensemble of returning students then performed “On the Path of Peace” and offered personal messages.

Student speaker Patricia Yukari Hirano congratulated her classmates who earned master’s degrees in Educational Leadership and Societal Change. “Everything that we were expecting from the program, like the joys of conducting summer research in different countries, or experiencing the graduate life opportunities on campus, we had to put it aside and adjust to the new normal,” she said.

“Being fearless while studying in this MA program amidst the challenging time meant feeling the fear and doing it anyway,” she added, ticking off what habits they had to master when in-person classes were suspended. “Being fluid, and embracing change, reflecting and questioning, courageously showing up, and taking action. Staying true to ourselves, never being defeated and creating value out of every situation we were in. And with this spirit, I strongly believe that we will continue to be fearless agents for social change wherever we are.”

Muskan Agrawal and Abigail Meyer spoke on behalf of the bachelor of liberal arts graduates. “The last few years were like a rickshaw riding over speed bumps in Delhi, when your entire body is jolted out because the bumps are gigantic,” Agrawal said, mentioning the wildfires that also disrupted residential life. “My four years at Soka have taught me that we are all stronger than we know.”

Meyer noted that the Class of 2021 was known for close bonds and shenanigans. “Witnessing some of you trying to choreograph Soka Fest alone is a source of inspiration, considering that our class has proven to be a little less than dance oriented—and I’m looking at myself especially when I say that,” she said.

“The community at Soka has not only brought me out of my shell, but it has the courage to say when something isn’t right, when I’m not right, and to encourage one another, during some of the most challenging times of our lives. It has shown me what the true meaning of support is.”

Dean of Students Hyon J. Moon read the founder’s Commencement Message to the Class of 2021 in which he conveyed: ”…all of you who are jewels of prodigal light, my warmest congratulations on this day! You have prevailed over challenge after challenge to celebrate your graduation with songs of triumph.”

The 2021 commencement made clear SUA is achieving its mission of fostering a steady stream of global citizens committed to living a contributive life.

As Masahiro Yokoyama said in his video message thanking everyone who supported his five years (including a bridge year) of undergraduate education at SUA: “I will contribute to the world as a global citizen.”

—Michelle Hiskey

Aerial view of campus
Video: View 2021 Commencement ceremony