Resilience, strength, and perseverance are three words that describe Wittenberg’s Class of 2023. Meeting every challenge that was thrown at them throughout their college experience, especially a global pandemic, the graduating class of 270 overcame everything to let their light shine in their time at Wittenberg and during today’s 173rd Commencement Exercises. Even rain could not dampen the spirits of the University’s newest alumni after inclement weather moved the May 13th ceremony indoors to the Pam Evans Smith Arena for the first time since 2011.
Throughout the week leading up to the big event, students reflected on the importance of community, trust in times of change, passing their light on to others, sharing their light with others, and challenging one another to live out their callings beyond Wittenberg.
Wittenberg President Michael L. Frandsen led the Commencement ceremony, congratulating the class of 2023 in his opening remarks and asking the graduates to think back on their time at the University.
“Class of 2023, you made it! Your journey over the years to get to this day was not at all like any of us imagined when most of you came to campus in the fall of 2019,” he said. “That fall was normal for life on a college campus. You, as Wittenberg Tiger cubs, were finding your way, navigating our culture, making new friends, and exploring a new degree of independence. We had a fantastic day for Homecoming and celebrated the renovated and expanded Health, Wellness & Athletics Complex. You experienced your first Midnight Breakfast, went home for the holidays, and returned for spring semester. When you left for spring break, change and uncertainty were in the air, but I don’t think any of us knew what was about to hit us.”
Frandsen then went on to remind graduates of the events that took place shortly after they left campus for spring break in March 2020.
“Class of 2023, if you didn’t fully understand it before, the COVID-19 pandemic and its effects on 2020, 2021, 2022, and still now, are a clear reminder that life is not a straight line,” he continued. “Your life will take you forward, sideways, backward, and up the hill and down. You will prepare for this, only to have that happen. You will pivot, then pivot again. The good news – through your education and experience, you are ready for almost anything that comes your way. You’ve shown that you can persevere, move ahead, and achieve success. You’ve set yourselves on a path of perpetual learning, growth, and change. Another part of your readiness is the support of others. In addition to the faculty, you’ve had support from your families, your friends, staff and coaches at Wittenberg, and many others. Thank them, with applause now, but also with a written or spoken word. Reciprocate. Provide support to others and be a model of passing on your light.”
Senior Class President Haley Eckhert also addressed her classmates during the ceremony. Eckhert, from Columbus, Ohio, is a psychology and business management double major who has been active at Wittenberg as a member of Alpha Delta Pi sorority, the Communication and Business Leadership Experience (CABLE) Program, 4 Paws for Ability, a Tiger Team member, a tour guide in the Office of Admission, and a member of the Honors Program. Upon graduation, she plans to pursue a career in recruiting and human resources, as well as attend graduate school to earn a master’s degree in industrial organizational psychology.
“To the class of 2023, all I can say is WOW! I can’t believe we finally made it. We have overcome so many things in order to be sitting here today, and I for one am proud of all of us for showing such resilience during our time here at Wittenberg,” Eckhert said to her classmates. “I have no doubt that each of us sitting here is destined to conquer any challenge that comes our way. We may be a small class but we are certainly mighty. Whether you are becoming a doctor, teacher, coach, dancer, finance bro, curer of cancer, psychologist, physical therapist or some other amazing impactful career, remember you are more durable than you ever imagined. Despite numerous limitations, countless hardships and one worldwide pandemic, we, as a class, never shied away from leadership positions or difficult conversations, and I am certain that we left our mark here on this beautiful campus. The challenges we have had to overcome during some ‘unprecedent times’ has changed us by creating strong leaders that appreciate everything life has to offer.”
Eckhert went on to say that while life throws some unexpected challenges, embrace the uncertainty.
“Class of 2023, the next chapter of our lives may be uncertain, but I encourage you to embrace that uncertainty the same way you have embraced all the opportunities here at Wittenberg,” she added. “Stephen Colbert said ‘Life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next, and you are mostly just making things up as you go along.’ I think everyone here understands that life tends to throw us into some unexpected challenges – just look at our last four years – but through faith in ourselves and hard work, you will able to see your way though. I feel improvisation is something most college students are familiar with if you ever procrastinated writing a paper or forgot to do a reading for a class. Utilize those improvisation skills and take the next chapter of your life by storm.”
Albert Bryan Jr., Wittenberg class of 1989 and governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands, served as the class’ keynote speaker. Bryan is the ninth elected governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands with a population approx. 105,000. He was first elected to the highest office in 2018 and re-elected again in 2022. Bryan said that this accomplishment completed a lifelong goal he has worked on since graduating from Wittenberg.
Bryan’s career track has reflected Wittenberg’s success in producing problem-solvers, critical thinkers, and creative graduates who can adapt and succeed wherever they land. Bryan has pursued such diverse paths as an oil refinery worker, business office manager of a multi-million-dollar Virgin Islands corporation, commissioner of the Virgin Islands Department of Labor, and an entrepreneur focused on strategies to create business opportunities and career paths for others. He also inspired future generations in financial literacy and leadership as executive director of the Virgin Islands branch of Junior Achievement USA. He was presented with a honorary Doctor of Humane Letters during the ceremony.
As governor, he now presides over four islands - St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John and Water Island - and 25 different departments. He is complemented by a legislature of 15 elected senators. Bryan was slated to be the Commencement speaker in 2020, but due to the pandemic, the ceremony took place online.
The first time in 34 years that Bryan has been able to visit his alma mater, the Governor used his time to provide wisdom and inspirational words, urging the graduates to “find their passion and squeeze the life out of it like you do the toothpaste tube in your drawer.
“The courage to pursue your passion takes a lot. You must be bold, willing to take risks, be strong enough to stand up and move forward. You will find people who will always want to run your life, but be the master of your fate, the captain of your soul as you only live this great life once. Live passionately. Think about it. What is it that makes you happy. What is your true passion? The hardest thing in life is to figure out what you really want.”
During his address, Bryan also noted that life can be unfair at times, but that the Class of 2023 has the power to control their perspective and to keep strengthening their minds, adding that the mind is the best asset a person can have.
“If you can’t change the world, change how you look at it….the good news is that all that I had done before at this fine institution prepared me for the next lifecycle of my journey. This is the beginning of your next chapter.
“Life is about the journey, not just getting there. The memories will last a lifetime. And remember, there are only two kinds of people in this world – good and bad. Please be good.”
The conferring of degrees then followed. A total of 96 graduates earned Latin honors in recognition of their exceptional academic pursuits, including 38 graduating summa cum laude, 14 graduating magna cum laude, and 44 cum laude. Six seniors were recognized for having a 4.0 grade point average: Abigail Gerstenzang, Buffalo, New York; Maya Hagander, Stafford, Virginia; Mallory Koester, Fairborn, Ohio; Maci Runkle, Springfield, Ohio; Evan Wuertemberger, Cincinnati, Ohio; and Alexander Zysik, Perrysburg, Ohio.
Lastly, the graduates were welcomed into Wittenberg’s vibrant alumni community by Laurice Moore, class of 1995 and president of the Wittenberg University Alumni Association.
“Congratulations, class of 2023! Today you become part of something larger than just the faces you see in Pam Evans Smith Arena,” said Moore, to the Class of 2023. “You now join the ranks of more than 26,000 individuals worldwide who are proud Wittenberg Alumni. Our alumni base not only pursues its passion but also lives our motto, ‘Having Light We Pass It On to Others.’ Your light was lit four years ago as you moved onto campus to your undergraduate journey; it kindled and grew and will continue to grow as you pursue your dreams. Let your light shine and remember the place, people, and times. This bond of the light, the Wittenberg experience, truly transcends class years. As you embark on your journey as Wittenberg alumni, please remember to stay connected to Wittenberg, represent Wittenberg proudly, and support Wittenberg. It is now my pleasure to officially welcome you as fully vested members of the Wittenberg Alumni Association – with all the rights and privileges and pride that go with being alumni of this great school. Congratulations!”
The Class of 2023 included students from Alabama, Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin, as well as three international students from England, Japan, and Liberia.
Degrees awarded included bachelor of arts, bachelor of fine arts, bachelor of music education, bachelor of science, bachelor of science in nursing, masters of arts in sports management, master of arts in education, and master of science in analytics. One student earned two degrees and the most popular majors included biology, education, exercise science, nursing, and psychology.
On a special note for today’s ceremony, members of the Class of 2023 wished to remember their classmate, Jack Benak, who tragically passed away on March 12, 2020. A moment of silence and an empty chair was added to symbolize Jack’s place in the class of 2023 and the impact he had in his brief time with us.
In the spirit of Wittenberg's long history of senior class giving, the Class of 2023 was also thrilled to be a part of the inaugural philanthropy cord, a green and gold cord that recognizes the generosity of giving back to your community. The cord will be known as a symbol of tradition and excellence to wear proudly during your Commencement ceremony.
The event was streamed live, a recording of which is available online. For that link and additional Commencement information, click here. Special coverage can also be found on Twitter at #StompTheSeal.