Commencement speakers at Saturday graduations of the oldest and newest higher-learning institutions in the Lowcountry urged more than 1,600 students to dedicate their lives to public service and bettering their communities.
The College of Charleston, which was founded in 1770 and chartered in 1785, sent a total of 1,465 newly minted graduates into the world at morning and afternoon ceremonies at the oak-canopied Cistern.
The Charleston School of Law, which opened in 2004, graduated 195 at a ceremony at The Citadel’s McAlister Field House.
At the College of Charleston, commencement speaker Arlinda Locklear — a Lumbee who graduated from the college in 1973 and has served as a lawyer specializing in Indian affairs for more than 30 years — gave a riveting speech about the importance of service.
“You should consider a life dedicated to public service,” said Locklear, who was the first female Native American to argue a case before the Supreme Court.
“The fields of public service are numerous and varied. I dare say there is a field of public service that is perfectly tailored to every member of the 2012 graduating class.”
Locklear said public service — whether it’s in the realm of the arts, science, government, nonprofits, medicine or law — is part of upholding the “social contract” that led to each student’s upbringing as healthy and educated children.
She added, however, that serving the public for good doesn’t mean having “to bear a burden that does not speak to your heart.”
“To the contrary. If you have been engaged at all in the world around you, and have been even the least self-aware, you will have encountered at some point a disconnect between ideal and reality, between our highest aspirations and our actions,” said Locklear.
“If you ever once thought, ‘That’s not right,’ or said yourself, ‘This shouldn’t happen,’ then I suggest that you may have already found a career in public service that speaks to you.”
Locklear was presented with an honorary degree from the college in the afternoon ceremony.
Meanwhile, at the Charleston School of Law, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley and commencement speaker Bucky Askew received honorary degrees at the school’s sixth graduation for their dedication to public service for more than three decades.
Askew — former director of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association and an appointee of former President Bill Clinton to the Legal Services Corporation — also sounded the call for serving the community.
“Earning a law degree is a privilege,” said Askew. “Lawyers have an opportunity, and I believe an obligation, to use their education and their license to make the world a better place.”
Askew said his favorite quote is from the “noted 20th century philosopher” Lily Tomlin: “The problem with the rat race is that, even if you win, you’re still a rat.”
Askew added; “Think about it. The call of professionalism is not a call to the rat race but to the unselfish service to clients, to community, to society. (It is) a professional responsibility that implies a servant’s role and a call to public service.”
Apparently, the law school’s Class of 2012 already is on that road.
In all, the class donated 24,557 recorded hours of free legal service since 2009 and worked 11,264 hours in externship programs through the school’s partnership with more than 120 organizations and offices.
Among its graduates was Shirene Hansotia, 40, who worked for the CIA in counterterrorism before enrolling in law school a few years ago.
She spent most of her decade-long intelligence career working in Africa and the Middle East, where she gathered information for U.S. policy makers.
Her work included tracking leads on Osama bin Laden before and after Sept. 11, 2001.
She decided on law school as her next step because it seemed to focus on many of her interests including: policy issues, writing and current events.
Comparing experiences, she said, “Law school is intense, but it opened up a whole new world I knew nothing about.”
While going back to school is a challenge, few faced more life challenges than 25-year-old Katherine Gumps, who was raised by her grandparents after her mother was killed by a drunken driver when Gumps was a child.
Subsequently, her grandfather died when she was 10, after which she and her grandmother struggled with financial problems. Gumps dropped out of high school when she was 16 so she could work.
Money problems were so severe for her in her late teens that she at times lived out of her car. She took jobs well below her skill level simply to pay some bills. But one day, while working at her job delivering pizza, she had a revelation.
“I just knew I was wasting my abilities,” she said. “I was tired of working at minimum-wage jobs.”
She first enrolled at Trident Technical College, then moved on to the College of Charleston. Her performance was so stellar that she has been accepted into a neurobiology and behavior doctoral program at the University of Washington.
She wants to encourage students who have made mistakes early in their academic careers, or those who also have faced challenges in life, to continue to work toward their dreams.
“No matter how bad things get, they’ll always get better,” she said. “That’s how things are. They go up and they go down.”