The enormous white tent pitched on Garland Field was filled to capacity both morning and afternoon on Thursday, May 23, as thousands gathered to watch members of the class of 2002 take their first steps off the Homewood campus toward the rest of their lives.
The occasion was Johns Hopkins' 126th commencement, with the universitywide degree-conferring event followed a few hours later by the undergraduate diploma ceremony for the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and the Whiting School of Engineering. Both ceremonies were punctuated with a steady stream of applause, spontaneous whoops and hollers, and even a few joyous airhorn blasts for good measure.
They were two of the many diploma award ceremonies held last week by the university's eight academic divisions.
"My thoughts on the day? How about 'ahhhhhhh!'' cried Camille Fesche, a newly minted bachelor of international relations with a minor in history, emitting a more melodious airhorn blast of her own. "I think it's just unbelievable to be here. It's hard to believe it's all over."
Each of the two ceremonies took three to four hours, but nobody really seemed to mind. All that time sitting on folding chairs was of little consequence to scores of family and friends there to celebrate a loved one's big day.
In the morning, the ceremony was for all graduates, but those earning doctoral degrees were the only ones who crossed the stage one by one to receive their diplomas. Relatives were there to catch the exact second when a medical school student officially becomes a physician--a momentous feat symbolized by the few green velvet stripes on their black robes. Or perhaps they were there to watch a child who used to sing in the shower now wearing the pink-hooded robe of a doctor of musical arts.
No matter whom the audience was there to see or what color tassels were swinging from their student's mortar board, all craned their necks and jockeyed for the best seats to see Johns Hopkins' newest alumni.
"It's an amazing feeling," sighed Jomo Coddett just moments into his first official day as an M.D. "I'm just trying to savor the moment, to take it all in." When he was 10, Coddett said, he and his family moved to Yonkers, N.Y., from Guyana. "It's been a big road getting here, but this was always a goal, pretty much the whole time."
"He's my only son," gushed his mother, Yvonne Coddett, as she gazed lovingly at Jomo. "We are so very proud."
Also bursting with pride after the morning ceremony were both sets of graduating senior Jonathan Hofeller's grandparents. The color-coordinated "Hopkins Grandfather" baseball caps they sported along with their matching ear-to-ear grins made no secret of Ed Hofeller's and Martin Vajcovec's allegiance. Grandmothers Denise Hofeller and Anne Vajcovec were hatless, but just as excited about the family's new mechanical engineer.
"He's such a wonderful boy, his friends are nice, and his room is so clean, which is unusual," Anne Vajcovec said, giving a detailed account of Jonathan's off-campus digs.
An entourage like Hofeller's--including his twin sister Caroline, parents Charles and Susan, and several other camera-toting Hofellers and Vajcovecs--was welcome to root for its student du jour under the big top in the morning. But for the undergraduate diploma ceremony in the afternoon, this year's new ticket requirement limited the cheering section under the tent to four tickets per graduate.
Those parents, grandparents and siblings without the coveted light blue oaktag tickets could relish their seniors' accomplishments from Shriver Hall, where the auditorium's screen featured a live broadcast also being shown in the tent.
The undergraduate ceremony afforded all a chance to catch a glimpse of baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr., who received an honorary degree. Graduates stood on their chairs to get a view of the Iron Man as he walked down the aisle to be honored for both his professional accomplishments and philanthropic ties to Baltimore and the Hopkins community.
Ripken's 6-foot-4-inch presence almost dwarfed the day's other celebrity, NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, the speaker and another honorary degree recipient. But Brokaw, with his distinct voice and dry sense of humor, gladly shared the spotlight with the hometown hero.
"It's truly a humbling experience to walk into a Baltimore arena behind Cal Ripken," Brokaw said from the podium.
Then there was this zinger, riffing on a joke from student council president Anuj Mittal and referring to today's economic climate: "Yes, your parents may be getting a pay increase, but they are also likely to be gaining a tenant."
But Brokaw's address took a serious turn, noting that with the events of Sept. 11, the class of 2002 is entering a far different world than they anticipated when they entered college.
"Just a year ago graduates were part of a society in which they were confident of their personal security, relished their personal freedoms, expected to cash in on a long, uninterrupted run for the gold in the American economy and rarely contemplated phrases such as patriotism, military service, Islam or, most of all, terrorism." Brokaw said. "Welcome to your new world."
"But before you sink into your caps and gowns in an implosion of self-pity," Brokaw continued, "let me remind you of other times in which the world changed and it was all hands on deck, navigating through new seas by the stars for the old navigational charts were of little use." He went on to urge the graduates to look to "the greatest generation," their grandparents, for inspiration and the moxie to face the months and years ahead.
University President William R. Brody tackled similar territory in his address during the morning ceremony. "How many of you sitting here this morning, I wonder, have a map in mind of where you'll be going after you've been handed your diploma and take leave of Johns Hopkins?" Brody asked. "I would hazard to guess, most of you." Leadership and perhaps even fame, he guessed, were what many departing seniors had in mind, even if they are loathe to admit it.
"The quest for fame alone is unlikely to lead to happiness," Brody said. "In my experience, the most lasting rewards come from helping others, from giving back through service, what others before have given to us, through the small simple deeds that go largely unnoticed and are entirely unheralded by others."
No matter what their future holds, all the graduates were indeed stars for a day on May 23, when they allowed themselves a few hours to soak up the warm sunshine and the glow of their accomplishments.
"I can't believe it's all over," said Katherine Dix, who earned a degree in the history of science, medicine and technology. "We came together here from all over, and now we are being split up. But it was so great that I'd do it all over again."