Soka’s 2022 Commencement: A Joyful Ceremony Celebrating Mission-Driven Graduates
As an overcast morning in Aliso Viejo gave way to sunshine, the skies seemed to know it was time to celebrate after a challenging few years. Soka University of America’s 2022 commencement ceremony on May 27 felt especially joyful as it was the first held in person since 2019.
More than 600 guests, including families holding handmade signs brandishing their graduate’s name, faculty and staff, and commencement speaker Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Shirin Ebadi came together to congratulate the graduates. President Edward Feasel, joined by Professor Tomoko Takahashi, dean of the graduate school and vice president for institutional research and assessment, and Professor Michael Weiner, vice president for academic affairs and interim dean of faculty, conferred the Master of Arts degree in Educational Leadership and Societal Change to four graduate candidates and the Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Arts to 105 undergraduate candidates.
Each of those graduates, Pres. Feasel said, has a unique contribution to make to society. He recalled that in his own youth he’d been strongly impacted by university founder Daisaku Ikeda’s words that a person discovers a mission by climbing the mountain that is in front of them and developing the muscles and strength to take the next steps.
“Those who remember they have a unique mission are strong,” he said, quoting Mr. Ikeda. “Whatever problems they have, they will never be defeated. They can transform all of their problems into catalysts for growth toward a hope-filled future.”
Now that the graduates had scaled the mountain of their education, Pres. Feasel said, they were prepared to climb to the next summit. “Along your journey you will certainly face challenges, the greatest of which is often one’s own self; the challenge to maintain the confidence and belief in yourself,” he said. “But I hope in those moments, you will remember back to your days at SUA and know that all of us here fully believe in each and every one of your potential and ability.”
Dean of Students Hyon Moon then read a commencement message from the founder for the undergraduate and graduate classes of 2022. “My beloved graduates,” Mr. Ikeda wrote, “precisely because you stand today on the cusp of an arduous journey in an era of trial and turmoil, I offer these words on your departure: Summon forth resounding courage and exercise your true worth as global citizens of Soka.”
A Call to Safeguard Democracy
Marking her first visit to Soka in more than a decade, lawyer, activist, and Nobel winner Dr. Ebadi offered an inspiring keynote speech that emphasized the importance of recognizing the interconnectedness of all humans. Dr. Ebadi encouraged listeners to “wish for others a world like the one we enjoy.”
Creating that world requires active and vigilant participation in democracy, she said, noting how recent events in the United States indicate that democracy can be attacked at any time.
“Citizens’ duties are not only participation in elections and the ballot box,” she said. “The more important duty of citizens is supervising democracy very carefully. The activities of all of those who have been elected have to be supervised, so that they perform their duties to the best of their ability.”
Dr. Ebadi referred to the potential reversal of Roe v. Wade by the US Supreme Court and called for women’s sovereignty over their bodies. “Women’s bodies belong to women and no one else has the right to determine what a woman does with her own body,” she said. “Therefore, we must peacefully defend this right and not let a matter of discrimination backslide.”
Another world event that calls attention to the need to recognize all people as equal is the Ukrainian refugee crisis. Despite the clear need for worldwide assistance for Ukrainian refugees, Dr. Ebadi suggested that people reflect on whether “refugees who are Muslims and people of color, fleeing wars in their countries,” are treated similarly. “Should this be the case,” she said, “continuing such discriminatory behavior is an example of backsliding of the principle of equality of human beings, and we should not be indifferent to it. Discrimination and injustice can spread like a virus in the society. Injustice to you is the first step of injustice to me. Let’s not be indifferent!”
Committed to their Missions
The students chosen by their classmates as speakers—Naphon Golf Petplai, Subina Thapaliya, Tayná Baptista Ferreira, and Khai Phyn Teo—described the impact their Soka years have had on their path to global citizenship.
Petplai, who joined Thapaliya and Ferreira to represent undergraduates, said his Soka education led to an understanding of the interconnectedness Dr. Ebadi had referenced. “Soka liberated me from defining myself based on social categories like gender, race, religion, and economic background,” Petplai said. “Soka breaks down those walls between our values that may seem incompatible with each other. Soka teaches us to use wisdom to see how every aspect of our identity interconnects with one another. Soka trains you to become people who can connect any gap, between people’s hearts, between our ideals and the harsh realities of society. That is the true strength of a liberal artist.”
Graduate student speaker Teo, a two-time SUA graduate and first-generation international student from Malaysia, noted the various challenges many students faced to get to this moment.
“If you identify as a person of color—especially a woman of color—or queer, an immigrant or a child of immigrants, a first-gen student, disabled, struggle with physical or mental health, or if you’re coming from a developing or underdeveloped country, you deserve more than congratulations,” Teo said. “Being here means not only we’ve made it, but it’s also a victory for our families, our communities, a victory for all of those who came before us and who had to sacrifice their lives so that we could be here today, and a victory for those who are counting on us to pave the way for them.”
Teo credited the graduate program and Soka for helping them become “more than what I envisioned myself to be.”
Thapaliya returned to the podium to receive the Founders Award, which honors the graduating undergraduate who exemplifies the university’s ideals through service and academic excellence. Thapaliya, who plans to attend graduate school and return to Nepal to give back to her community and create opportunities for others there, recalled finding inspiration as a child in a book her father had given her about a boy who had lost his parents to social and political turmoil, but after getting an education helped overthrow a tyrannical ruler.
“I vividly remember lying on a tattered straw mat on a muddy porch, years ago in a small village in Southern Nepal and dreaming about attending a university,” she said. “I started visualizing the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge as my tools to bring transformations in my own life, and in the lives of people around me.” A decade later, the reality “feels way more beautiful than the dream, and that is because of the sincere support and friendship that I have experienced here.”