Baker Report: Something old, something new

grad-cap-3Commencement is an extraordinary time.

The thinkers and doers of tomorrow are opening wide the doors to new and exciting chapters of life. They are eager and hungry for the opportunities and challenges that await, and, as members of the university community that nurtured them, we should feel empowered by their enthusiastic appetites for what – and whatever – comes next.

For most, of course, the answer is employment.

Many of this weekend’s graduates probably have read the recent news that members of the Class of 2016 are entering the best job market since the recession. I’m sure their parents have enjoyed those headlines as well.

But this weekend’s commencement exercises will remind our soon-to-be alumni that Student Career Success takes many shapes and sizes.

Eboo Patel, who will receive an honorary doctoral degree Friday evening, and Gus Trantham, who’s joining us during the final ceremony Saturday for a very different reason, illustrate that point well.

An interfaith activist and president of the Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core, Eboo and his cohorts work to unite people of all religious and belief systems and to find common ground in service to others.

Eboo Patel
Eboo Patel

He’s advised President Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships and, through his book, “Acts of Faith,” and his many visits to the NIU campus, has made a tremendous positive impact on our community.

Diversity is a critical part of our mission, something we’ve demonstrated in the last year with the hiring of a chief diversity officer, the launch of Diversity Dialogues and the formation of the NIU Presidential Commission on Interfaith Initiatives.

We’ve also partnered this academic year with Eboo’s Interfaith Youth Core to interpret results of a campus survey on the religious and spiritual climate, to train 75 faculty members to teach “Acts of Faith” in the classroom and to support the creation of the BetterTogether@NIU student organization.

In Eboo’s personal story – a journey from an apathetic adolescent to a college student who yearned to become part of something greater – our students, like many in their generation, have taken inspiration to make a difference through service to others. Our world is a smaller, and better, place.

Gus, meanwhile, will show our young graduates the benefits of leading a life well-lived.

Gus Trantham
Gus Trantham

Sixty-three years after he officially graduated from NIU, he will return Saturday to personally collect his diploma. It was something he could not do in May of 1953 as he fought behind enemy lines in the Korean War.

Like many of our graduates this weekend, Gus was a first-generation college student who worked several jobs to make ends meet. He spent summers training to become an officer in the U.S. Navy and, in the winter of 1952, was called to active duty aboard the USS Toucan.

His parents came to DeKalb with tears in their eyes and joy in their hearts to accept a diploma on behalf of their son. Nonetheless, the well-decorated veteran, successful businessman and proud NIU alum always regretted not crossing the stage himself to shake the hand of one of my predecessors, Leslie A. Holmes.

I’m thrilled that Gus and his treasured family, including children and grandchildren, are with us on campus this week. We are honored to make his dream come true.

As we gather Friday and Saturday to celebrate stories of success, and to start writing new ones, let’s aspire to follow the guidance of Eboo and Gus: Make the most of where the roads of life lead you, provide direction to those trailing in your footsteps and remember to share the rewards of the adventure.

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