Fall 2019 Commencement Highlights

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Graduate Speaker


Shallum Atkinson, SOE/MEd, delivers the Graduate Address.

Congratulations Class of 2019! First and foremost, I want to thank God. To Chairman Duber, President Burwell, Provost Myers, deans, families, and friends, thank you for supporting us on this journey.

Now this may come as a shock to everyone, but yes, I can confirm that there are in fact 26 letters in the English alphabet. Our understanding of the alphabet is mired in the combination of those letters to make words for our communication. But today, some of those letters will form to represent the degrees conferred today such as B.As, B.Ss, not the kind you’re all now thinking about, M.As, M.Eds, Ph.Ds and more. Letters that will forever be associated with your name. But often forgotten in this world of expediency, when we scan past these letters on places like LinkedIn, social media, resumes and mediums of the like, are the things that you can’t see without digging deeper – the stories etched in fine print into the ink of those very letters.

When I am blessed to officially obtain my Master of Education Policy and Leadership today, I will always see more than just the letters M.Ed. I will recall the sleepless nights that followed a full day of work and a full night of class that left me drained beyond compare. I will remember the conversations with Professor Jennifer Steele that led me to keep-on, keeping on to heights I could never imagine. I will feel the pain of the losses of loved ones over the past couple of years that forever changed who I was as a person, and whose wishes for me I carry in my heart. I will reminisce on the never-ending support and dreams my parents had for me to live a better life than they were ever able to live, leading them to sacrifice their own dreams so I could live mine. I will read in those letters the adversity of my start in D.C. that was coupled with working three jobs to make ends meet. But more so, beyond the letters I will reflect on a specific cold and dreary night where I contemplated giving up on my dreams.  And yet, a once seemingly unconquerable obstacle has joined the likes of many stories that will follow the comma in my signature. I believe many of these sentiments ring true for so many of you.

Turn to your neighbor and say neighbor, you are more than the degrees you hold. Class of 2019 remember these few things as we leave here today. Remember to run your own race for that is the only race that counts, take a leap of faith towards your greatest dreams, and believe in the impossible as so many greats did before us.  And as we turn the page from our chapter at American University and we hold high the degrees we’ve attained, be proud of the work you’ve done, never forget the lessons learned, and always see beyond the letters.

Undergraduate Speaker


Shideya Parrilla, SIS/BA, delivers the Undergraduate Address.

Good Morning and welcome distinguished guests, faculty, staff, alumni, and most importantly the graduating Class of 2019! I am honored and humbled to stand before you this morning. The journey to graduation, like the DC weather, has entailed lots of challenges and surprises, but been filled with so much beauty and growth.

In the Fall of 2016 I left the Virgin Islands and came to Washington DC, like many of you filled with hopes and dreams, but also many misconceptions about the world and college experience. Growing up in the Caribbean, I was culturally unprepared to enter a predominantly white and liberal campus. I had never thought of myself as a minority, I knew racism existed but I didn’t engage in conversations on topics like microaggressions, nor sat in a room where no one looked or talked like me. I have to be honest, despite my excitement about going to school in Washington, DC., these experiences overwhelmed me. To cope I isolated myself. I loved my classes but I felt I didn’t belong here.

All of this changed in the Fall of 2017, right as we entered into the height of the semester, two Category 5 hurricanes struck the Virgin Islands, and I genuinely feared for the lives of my loved ones. In the aftermath, I found myself unable to communicate with my immediate family, the people I relied on most, and for a few weeks, I was financially dependant on my federal work study job while my other siblings devised ways to send basic supplies back home. I went from class to class, refusing to fall behind on my school work, feeling that it was my duty to make my family, and entire island community proud. I was fully prepared to sink into my seat, go unnoticed, and be exactly what the Virgin Islands was in the media coverage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria: invisible and silenced.

But the AU community didn’t allow me to do that: class discussions on the natural disasters were held, my friends and peers personally inquired on the wellbeing of my family, and various university offices and organizations offered their support. In the following months, AUCatholic offered me a family when I needed it most and I became a part of a community rooted in the love of Jesus. Looking around I just felt like me, like Shideya. For the first time since I left St. Croix I felt that I was seen and heard.

This challenged me to look at our school differently and to see the humanity in others that I desired for them to see in me, and once I did my entire perspective was transformed. I began to recognize the vibrant energy here, an energy that propels Wonks to challenge the status quo, demanding respect and equal treatment for one another regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or economic status. It is this energy that compels us to take initiative here and across the world, even when it makes us uncomfortable.

Our University may not be perfect, but it is so easy to fall into cynicism, allowing darkness to overshadow light. So I challenge you not to sell yourself, or others short. If being an AU Eagle has taught us anything it is that changing the world starts with taking a look around us, seeing the humanity in others, and daring to be challenged. No matter where life takes you next, don’t do what I did my Freshman year. Look up and around you, put yourself out there to be seen and heard, and then look and listen, because this is how we change the world, one voice, one encounter, and one person at a time.

Keynote Speaker


Michael Nutter delivered the keynote address for Fall 2019 graduates on December 15 in Bender Arena.

Good morning, and congratulations to all of the Graduates, we are so proud of you! It is an incredible honor and privilege to be with you today, and I am humbled and excited to be the Fall 2019 Commencement Speaker at American University. President Burwell and Provost Myers, thank you for conferring the Honorary Degree, I will try to convince the folks back home in Philadelphia to start calling me “Dr. Nutter”!

Let me begin by saying how thankful I am to our President, Secretary Sylvia Burwell for inviting me to speak today. President Burwell and I got to know each other when she of course was Secretary of HHS and I was Mayor of Philadelphia. I admired her service to our nation, and I greatly admire her leadership and commitment to American University. Please give her a well deserved round of applause!! One of your many achievements that very much resonated with me is what you have accomplished in the area of sustainability, and let me commend you, your team and especially the students for becoming the 1st University to reach Carbon Neutrality in America – and two years ahead of your own ambitious schedule – it’s a big deal!

Now, like a City, it takes a great team of leaders and supporters to make a great University grow and thrive, and we certainly have that team with us today. With that in mind, let me recognize and thank Chairman Marc Duber and the AU Board of Trustees, Provost Daniel J. Myers, all the Deans of Schools and Colleges, Faculty, Administrators, Staff members and all of the folks on the platform this morning. Let me also thank in particular Lisa Arakaki and Brian Chiglinsky, both of whom I probably drove completely crazy during the months leading up to Commencement, they really helped me a great deal. I have 2 shoutouts, one to Stephanie Livingston-Thornton, an extended family member, and Ms. Joy Thomas Moore, a huge friend to my wife Lisa and I.  I want to especially give recognition to those who sometimes in the course of our busy days may not always recognize or think about – the folks in Maintenance, Environmental Services, Facilities and Food Service – they really ensure that the University runs, and let us give them a huge round of applause!!

But, the most important group of people here today, in addition to our nearly 700 Graduates, are the Family, Friends, Supporters, and Mentors of these Graduates, and I’m asking the Graduates to please stand and applaud and thank your Support Network, the folks who were there for you through the good and not so good times – please salute them!

And so, let me begin by saying that I am a firm believer in the age old advice given by Franklin Delano Roosevelt about speeches – Be Sincere; Be Brief; Be Seated! I want to talk with you today about 3 words that I have found will shape your life, your relationships and your future – Faith, Resilience and Service. I would suggest that you have experienced all 3 of these things here at American University in a variety of ways. Faith, according to the source of knowledge and information – Wikipedia, is defined as “confidence or trust in a person, thing or concept.” The University exhibited faith in you by receiving and approving your application, with the belief and faith that you would be here today at Commencement. But more importantly, you had faith in yourself all along the way, even on the tough days, that you could do this work, that you could withstand the rigor of American’s academic excellence and that YOU would graduate. Now, some of you today will graduate with different honors – cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude. Well, when I graduated from Penn, my mother said, “Oh Laude”!! So, I know this was not an easy road for some of you, but you had faith in yourself – never lose that.

When tough times happen, and they will, whether in school, on the job, in your family, or with friends – it will be Resilience that will carry you through. Resilience – the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; also known as toughness or grit. It’s that drive inside of you that keeps you going even when you don’t think you can do more. Somehow, someway, you managed to figure out juggling courses, dealing with Professors, helping a friend or roommate who’s not doing well, handled adversity, dealt with diversity, listened to static from your parents or had too many late nights – studying….and in the process you grew stronger, learned more things about yourself and others, and are a better person as a result. This Resilience factor will stay with you, and you’ll use it more and more in your lives – never lose that. When I was Mayor of Philadelphia before, during and after the Great Recession, I wondered many days, “How are we going to get through all of this?” It was the resilience of the people of Philadelphia that helped me to understand that if we stuck together, if we kept moving forward, if we didn’t get distracted by nonsense and foolishness, if we showed up day after day after day, if we demonstrated our commitment to the citizens and each other, our resilient and unwavering efforts would pull us through, and they did.

And so now for this day, this moment, this turning point in your lives – where are we. Well, you’ve been on a journey, and reached a milestone, and a particular destination on this journey. The Mission of American University is “To advance knowledge, foster intellectual curiosity, build community, and empower lives of purpose, service and leadership.” The University articulates equally powerful and meaningful statements of Vision and Values, all of which have great meaning to me as a Former public servant. If you read my bio, or go to Wikipedia, you’ll find that I’m a Former City Councilman, Former President of the US Conference of Mayors, Former President of the Pennsylvania Municipal League, and of course, the Former Mayor of Philadelphia, my hometown. That’s a lot of “Formers” and I can now admit to you that being a “Former” is often better than being a “current”! I still attend the US Conference of Mayors meetings, and as a Past President I get great seats, great accommodations – and no responsibility at all – it’ so great!! But seriously, there is no greater calling or vocation than giving service to others. American University has prepared you well for Service – the action of helping or doing work for others. When we look at the history and efforts of American University, Chartered by Congress in 1893 – at least one example of Congress doing something good, we know American to be a university that is constantly pushing the envelope on the issues of the day – Diversity and Inclusion, with your Plan for Inclusive Excellence, and I commend you all for focusing on this work with established goals and the kind of intentionality that it takes to make progress in these areas. The training programs for Faculty and students that are increasingly important in our ever diversifying and global environments; engagement with the nearby community is a critical element of learning about and learning from your neighbors, and I would suggest a critical component of your academic and personal education as well; and the life of this campus, hosting over 14,000 students and faculty – there are cities in America smaller than that – this is a significant place in one of the most significant cities in the world. And so, you all as Graduates are at the center of all of this activity and the opportunities to serve are incredible – never lose sight of that. Everyone needs some help from someone at some point in their lives – and you could be that someone one day.

You all have been very patient and kind. As I mentioned before, I am thrilled, honored and appreciative of the opportunity to share in this most important moment and achievement in your lives, I’m excited for you and about you. I know you will do good and do well in this city, nation and world, using Faith, Resilience and Service as your guides. I hope you know that I’ve been sincere in my comments, I tried to be brief, and now I’ll be seated! Thank you and congratulations to the Fall Class of 2019!

Keynote Speaker Biography

Michael Nutter Former Mayor, City of Philadelphia

Michael A. Nutter is the inaugural David N. Dinkins Professor of Professional Practice in Urban and Public Affairs at Columbia University.

After serving almost 15 years on the Philadelphia City Council, Nutter was elected the 98th mayor of his hometown in November 2007 and took office in January 2008. At his inaugural address, Mayor Nutter pledged to lower crime, improve educational attainment rates, make Philadelphia the greenest city in America, and attract new businesses and residents to the city. He also promised to lead an ethical and transparent government focused on providing high quality, efficient and effective customer service.

During his tenure as mayor, Nutter served as president of the United States Conference of Mayors and president of the Pennsylvania Municipal League. He was also named Public Official of the Year by Governing magazine.

Since leaving office, Nutter has continued his commitment to public service and civic engagement. In addition to providing political commentary for CNN, he serves as a senior advisor for Dentons, InState Partners, the Atlas Marketplace, Cities United, Clover Health, the Governance Project, and Green Diamond Solutions. Nutter sits on the boards of the Heartland Alliance, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Council on Criminal Justice, and the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation. He is a member of the external advisory council of JPMorgan Chase’s AdvancingCities and the Homeland Security Advisory Council. Nutter has also served as a fellow for What Works Cities, a program of Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago, and the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School. He is a venture partner with Ridge-Lane Limited Partners.

Mayor Nutter maintains active involvement in critical areas of education, media, public policy, political campaigns, the corporate community, and academic institutions across the country. He is a life-long Philadelphian, born and raised in West Philadelphia and educated at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.