Class of 2014 honored at Union’s 220th Commencement

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David Masterson peered out at 500 of his classmates about to receive their diplomas Sunday morning and spoke of the challenges and possibilities that await them.

“The beautiful thing about this moment is the tantalizing sense of possibility,” said Masterson, a theater major with a minor in history from Clifton Park, N.Y. "We have spent our four years discovering what moves and inspires us, and now we are poised to share ourselves with the world.

“Our challenge is to carry this spirit of community and this energy of possibility wherever we go. No matter how much we succeed, our road will also be riddled with pain, frustration and failure. In those moments of doubt, think back to your time at Union and remember this beautiful spirit of hope.”

Masterson was selected as the student speaker for Union’s 220th Commencement, held on Hull Plaza. For the full text of Masterson’s remarks, click here.

The featured speaker was Dr. Deborah L. Birx, a renowned international expert in the field of HIV/AIDS. Appointed earlier this year by President Obama as an ambassador at large and U.S. Global AIDS coordinator, she shared with graduates the deadly impact of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the developing world in the late 1990s.

While hospitals were overwhelmed by the volume of people dying at an alarming rate, access to antiretroviral treatment available in the U.S. was non-existent.

“AIDS was truly wiping out a generation of individuals,” said Birx.

As the first woman to hold the post of U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, Birx oversees the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) within the U.S. Department of State. She also manages the U.S. relationship with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the world’s largest public health financier.

The work of those organizations and others has helped slow the death rate from HIV/AIDS dramatically, and new infections are down 50 percent from its peak more than a decade ago.

“HIV infection is no longer a death sentence,” said Birx, whose visit was part of the College’s focus on wellness this year.

She received an honorary doctorate of science degree. She was introduced by Kathleen LoGiudice, associate professor of biology.

For the text of Birx’s remarks, click here.

Also receiving an honorary doctorate of science degree was Morris E. Fine, the Walter P. Murphy Professor Emeritus of Materials Science and Engineering in Service at Northwestern University. Fine is known for his contributions to the field of physical metallurgy, and his 1964 book, Introduction to Phase Transformations in Condensed Systems, is considered a classic in the field. He was nominated by Rebecca Cortez, associate professor of mechanical engineering.

In his charge to the graduates, President Stephen C. Ainlay commended the class for its impressive list of academic, community and athletic accomplishments, from the Watson and Fulbright fellowships to the baseball team’s first league championship and of course, the men’s hockey team’s NCAA Division I national championship “that even had opponents cheering.”

He reminded the class of the mark they left and the belief that they can make a difference outside of the campus gates based on their Union experience.

“I have tried to remind you throughout your four years here that with the opportunities Union has given you comes responsibility: responsibility to make a difference,” Ainlay said. “You are well on your way but keep at it. Believe that you are needed and believe that you are equipped to make the difference that your families, your communities, your workplaces, your country, your world needs.”

Citing Birx’s accomplishments, Ainlay also touched on the theme of making a difference in his baccalaureate remarks on Saturday.

“Ambassador Birx has made a difference and will undoubtedly continue to do so in her new role,” he said. “Making a difference has been a hallmark of a Union education since our founding,” he said. “It was part of President John Blair Smith’s charge to the first graduates of Union. It is in our “DNA” – witness the illustrious accomplishments of our many graduates. And, I’m not just talking about people like William Seward who changed the course of American history during his tenure as Secretary of State, helping shape President Lincoln’s opposition to slavery. I’m talking about the thousands of graduates who’ve crossed the stage before you.”

Two members of the Class of 2014 received special recognition: Class valedictorian Elliot Feld, a biology and music interdepartmental major from Centerport, N.Y, and salutatorian Catherine Ziac, an economics major with a minor in Russian from Niskayuna, N.Y.

For a list of the Class of 2014, click here.

For a list of Prize Day winners, click here.

To learn where 11 seniors, the newest group of Minerva Fellows, will go after graduation, click here.