Gallaudet University celebrated the achievements of over 400 undergraduate and graduate students as they received their degrees during the University’s 152nd Commencement ceremony in the Field House on the school’s Washington, D.C. campus. Gallaudet is the only university in the world where deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing students live and learn bilingually in American Sign Language and English.
Apple CEO Tim Cook, the leader of one of the world’s most innovative companies, delivered the keynote address. Cook congratulated graduates for overcoming the challenges of the pandemic, and encouraged them to leverage their education and life experiences at Gallaudet to make their own imprint on the world and “build a life of meaning and fulfillment.”
“Gallaudet has prepared you for a lifetime of discovery,” said Cook. “There is so much you’ve learned while you were here—more perhaps than you realize….And in the end, what you earned here is more than a diploma. It is more than a formal education. It is experience, insight and wisdom.
“I hope you’ve used this time to think deeply and openly about the world around you. To determine what you believe and why you believe it. What matters now is that you let those ideas guide you. That you let your values lead you. This is how you build a life of meaning and fulfillment.”
Added Cook: “I know, in my heart, that staying true to who you are and what you believe is one of the most important choices you can make. It will help you form better relationships. It will help you find more satisfaction in your work. And with a little luck and a lot of effort, it will help you build a more meaningful life.”
In closing, Cook challenged the graduates to put a twist on the natural question in front of them: “So when you imagine your future, and the winding path that is laid out before you, remember that the question you should ask is not ‘What will happen?’ But who will I be when it does?”
Cook was introduced by Academy Award-winning actor Marlee Matlin, H-’87, star of the 2022 Oscar-winning film CODA, one the most authentic representations of deaf people and their families in the history of cinema. The film was distributed by Apple TV+, and won three Oscars, for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Matlin’s character’s husband, played by Troy Kotsur.
Gallaudet President Roberta J. Cordano applauded graduates for coming together and rising to the challenge of the pandemic.
“The critical importance of collective action is one of the most powerful lessons of the pandemic,” Cordano said. “Yes, we were isolated and apart from one another but we did not let that stop us. We figured out how to connect virtually in the cloud. We kept learning, working, and progressing. When we returned to campus, it took all of us, unified, to be able to come together in person again.”
This, Cordano said, will prepare graduates for life in ways they never thought possible. “You attended college during a time of great challenge and upheaval. But you kept going. Step by step, moment by moment, obstacle after obstacle, you persevered….Go forth with this value you’ve experienced time and time again in our community. Bring what you have learned about the value of collective action supporting our community’s well-being. Use it to solve the complex problems we face in the world today. Remember that with sign language, we thrive!”
During the undergraduate ceremony, the university bestowed upon Lauren Ridloff the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa, formally recognizing the trailblazing deaf actress for her award-winning acting, work in education, community leadership, and the inspirational example she has set for deaf youth.
Ridloff, a regular in The Walking Dead television series, and cast as first deaf superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Eternals), encouraged students to find their own PACE – Perseverance, Adaptability, Commitment and Empathy. “You are change-makers,” said Ridloff. “After today, you are going out on your separate ways, but please remember, you are still connected through mutual experiences, values and beliefs. Every day you will find yourself moving at different speeds and that’s ok…just know that your pace and journey are perfect for you and you only….Find your pace and run free.”
The University also bestowed degrees of Doctor of Humane Letters honoris causa, to long-time Gallaudet University faculty members Dorothy Casterline and Carl-Gusaf Croneberg for their significant contributions to the field of linguistics and their dedication to the global deaf community. Among their many accomplishments, Casterline and Croneberg collaborated with Gallaudet professor Dr. William C. Stokoe as researchers in Gallaudet’s Linguistics Research Laboratory, which ultimately led to the landmark 1965 publication Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles. In addition, their work led to the transformation of the Linguistic Research Laboratory into an autonomous research facility, which prompted the establishment of Gallaudet’s world-renowned Linguistics program.
Undergraduate student commencement speaker Molly Feanny recalled how nervous she was when she first came to Gallaudet as an international student from Canada, and how the university helped her blossom.
“I came from a large, mainstreamed but yet still isolated world, to a very different environment here at Gallaudet, full of sign language and communication being so clear and understandable all around me,” said Feanny. “At first, like someone who just entered a whole new world, I was definitely overwhelmed and very scared…But soon enough, Gallaudet offered me everything that I could possibly dream of. Peers who could directly have a conversation with me, valuable role models and mentors, countless professional opportunities and, the most important thing of all, a sense of belonging.”
In the graduate ceremony, the keynote address was given by Dr. Naomi Caselli, Assistant Professor of Education and Human Development and co-director of the AI and Education Initiative at Boston University. In the latter role, she leads a research team that documents the structure of the American Sign Language (ASL) lexicon, the effects of language deprivation on language acquisition, and the ethical and practical challenges in using AI for sign language recognition.
Caselli talked about the impact language deprivation had on her deaf father, and how important ASL can be for a broader community.
“It takes all of us to build a better world. AI works best when we teach it using data that is as diverse as possible,” said Caselli. “The more of us that contribute and are represented, the better AI works. Dr. Casterline and Dr. Croneberg’s work on ASL didn’t just lift up ASL. The DeafBlind community did not just create ProTacticle. This work has blown open the boundaries on what we thought we knew about the human capacity for language. You have all spent a significant amount of time in one of the most unique linguistic environments in the world—and as you likely go on to a very different linguistic environment, I hope you carry the ember that began burning here and breathe life into it spreading that light to the world. ”
Graduate student commencement speaker Kristina Marie Balao Miranda, a Mother-Father Deaf Multicultural CODA (Child of Deaf Adults) of Color, earned both her associate’s and bachelor’s degrees in interpreting before coming to Gallaudet for her master’s degree in international development. She challenged her fellow graduates to take action when they see inequities.
“When we graduate we will go out into the world as individuals,” said Miranda. “As we continue to move through the world, we must remember that we have a collective responsibility towards justice.” Miranda added: “Let us continue to learn more about those who live on the margins of our communities and raise awareness to people who do not know, do not have access, or do not care. Let us do this with compassion, openness, and curiosity.”
This year’s Commencement ceremonies, for graduate students in the morning and undergraduate students in the afternoon, were the first in-person commencement since 2019.