BELLINGHAM - Thousands of Western Washington University students and their supporters flocked to campus Saturday, June 14, to receive their hard-earned degrees.
Amidst a sea of smartphones quickly snapping selfies and blurry memories to reminisce over later, the excited graduates were prompted by their commencement speakers to ponder what their next steps would be once they walked out the doors of Carver Gymnasium, diplomas in hand.
Gary Locke spoke at the first of three ceremonies Saturday. Locke, who served as Washington governor from 1997 to 2005 and recently finished a two-year stint as the U.S. ambassador to China, was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters by WWU President Bruce Shepard during the ceremony.
In his speech, Locke called on the class of 2014 to use their education to better the world.
"The purpose of education is not to lead a more comfortable life, but a more useful and meaningful one," he said.
He shared the story of Chen Guangcheng, also known as "The Blind Activist." Born to a peasant family in China, Guangcheng was blinded as a young boy by a fever. He started first grade at age 18, and quickly went on to become an outspoken civil and human rights activist. Despite the hardships he has faced, including beatings, prison time, and being placed under house arrest, Guangcheng, who came to the U.S. to continue his studies, still hopes to return to China to improve his homeland, Locke told the crowd.
"He could have accepted his fate, but he had a thirst for education and a thirst for justice," Locke said.
"You know too much and are too talented to turn your backs on disease, intolerance, poverty," he told the students, who represented the Colleges of Business and Economics and Fine and Performing Arts, Huxley College of the Environment and Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies.
What that means, as faculty speaker Johann Neem had said in his earlier speech, is the educational journey grads set out on years ago is not over.
Between jokes about moving back in with his parents and accumulating student loans, student speaker Brian O'Sullivan acknowledged the dreaded question that many students would already be trying to answer: What is your plan?
"It's easy to get caught up in the next step," O'Sullivan said. "Here's the real thing: Lead a happy and meaningful life. ... Do something that fulfills you."
WWU handed out 1,935 diplomas Saturday. The university has awarded more than 111,000 degrees in its 121-year history, Shepard said.
Western alumni Jerry Thon and Douglas Massey were commencement speakers at the second and third ceremonies.