It was a day to celebrate new graduates, but speakers at the University at Albany’s 171st undergraduate commencement put a special emphasis on the family members who stand behind those wearing the caps and gowns.
“If it weren’t for my mom, I would never be in this position right here, right now,” said UAlbany basketball player Peter Hooley, a 2015 graduate and the student speaker for Sunday’s ceremony.
Hooley gained fame in March for his game-winning shot to beat Stony Brook in the America East title game, advancing the Great Danes to the NCAA tournament. The victory came a short time after he lost his mother to cancer.
“While she was dying, I was ready to put my life on hold to stay home for her. She made me come to UAlbany, and it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I realized just why she did that. I’d like to think that she knew just how everything was going to turn out for me, that she had a plan all along,” he told a crowd of about 14,000 who gathered to watch more than 2,000 undergraduate students receive their diplomas Sunday morning.
Hooley graduated Sunday with a dual degree in journalism and psychology and plans to return to UAlbany to earn a master’s degree in interpersonal communication. He said he eventually hopes to play professional basketball in Europe.
The Australian native thanked his father and sister for traveling a great distance to be with him at the ceremony.
“I know my mom will be ready to catch my cap when I throw it up,” he said.
Hooley’s speech included anecdotes about good times in college, all that was learned, friends that were made and inside jokes that brought chuckles from other graduates.
He sent his fellow classmates off into the adult world with advice from his mother: “My mom always used to tell me to keep flying. Now I have the opportunity to tell all of you. So from her to me, and me to you, keep flying, Class of 2015.”
The crowd responded with a standing ovation.
The 2015 undergraduate class is made up of students from 19 states and 17 countries, including Korea, China and Ghana. Students earned degrees in 56 different majors.
University President Robert J. Jones presented author, feminist scholar and community activist Barbara Smith with an honorary doctoral degree during the ceremony. Smith is the special community projects coordinator for the city of Albany, and her work focuses on increasing empowerment and opportunity, especially in neighborhoods that have been marginalized because of racial, economic and social inequality.
Smith told the crowd she has spent her life working for justice, starting as a teenager during the Civil Rights Movement. She credited her family for her love of learning.
“I love telling other people how my family encouraged me to excel without ever pushing, threatening or bribing me, but simply through their daily example,” she said.
Smith urged the new graduates to join her in the fight against injustice.
“Since I and my generation will not be around indefinitely, we really need to know that the struggle will continue,” she said. “Many of you are already involved, challenging inequity, finding ways to speak out against bigotry and doing brave and innovative organizing.”
She encouraged the students to work together to solve complex social problems.
“This is your century and your planet to save,” she said. “Looking at you this morning, I am confident that you will.”
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