Actor and former White House staffer Kal Penn encourages graduates to reject cynicism
Union, N.J. – Kean University awarded 2,958 bachelor’s degrees on Thursday, May 18, at Newark’s Prudential Center. Actor, activist and educator Kal Penn, who portrays White House press secretary Seth Wright on the ABC television drama Designated Survivor, shared experiences from a life in film and politics with the graduates. Penn served as the Associate Director at the White House Office of Public Engagement during the Obama administration and peppered his address with political statements and behind-the-scenes insights into the Obama White House.
“In this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you've been raised and educated,” said Penn, quoting Obama before offering his own advice to the graduates.
“Enjoy the journey. Enjoy the struggle of all the things that are to come, and enjoy all the wonderful things that you are about to do, whether you get credit or not,” said Penn. “Reject cynicism. Talk to and work with people whom you might disagree with on a regular basis. And, maintain your sense of humor.”
Penn, a New Jersey native, highlighted his enduring connection to his home state, likening being from New Jersey to an “ethnicity.” He urged graduates to “focus on the shared values that we have as Americans.”
Thursday’s ceremony also recognized Marcus Corey Ellis, an honor student tragically killed in a Plainfield shooting in August 2016, with a posthumous degree. Ellis, who was dedicated to helping others through leadership and volunteerism, had hoped to continue his career of service by teaching history. His youngest brother Christion accepted the Bachelor of Arts in History with Teacher Certification on his behalf.
“I feel very honored and excited that I’m able to continue my brother’s legacy, come to Kean University and accept this award on his behalf. I wish he was here to accept it himself,” said Christion, who plans to attend Kean in the fall.
Kean President Dawood Farahi, Ph.D., advised graduates to cultivate the “4 Cs” –– confidence, commitment, courage and charity.
“Commit to something bigger than yourself,” said Farahi. “Get a dream. If you don’t have a dream, you can’t realize one.”
Kean’s Class of 2017 took time during the commencement ceremony to send a message of congratulations to their fellow graduates at Wenzhou-Kean University (WKU), Kean’s English-language campus in China, by holding aloft cards strategically placed on their chairs. A video of the greeting will be played at the WKU Commencement on Saturday, June 3.
Senior Class President Julio Olivo’s Kean journey began over 11 years ago with Project Adelante, a pre-college program that focuses on inspiring minority students to pursue a college degree. Olivo graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Global Business.
“Kean has given us a gift that many can only hope to obtain, a world-class education,” said Olivo. “We were fortunate to be taught by former CEOs, doctors and accomplished professionals who are at the peak of their careers.”
A Plainfield resident and native of Ecuador, Olivo concluded his speech by invoking famed lines from the Broadway musical Hamilton, “Let’s not throw away our shot…because immigrants get the job done!’”
Degrees were awarded to graduates from more than 30 countries including Brazil, Ghana, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Slovakia, Spain, Venezuela and Zimbabwe. A crowd of over 18,000 family members and friends attended the event.
Student Organization President Emily Cubilete of Bayonne told her classmates to “fall forward, not backward.”
“Remember that difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations. Don’t worry about failures, worry about the chances you miss when you don’t even try. The one thing that nobody in this world can take from you is the knowledge that you have invested in,” she said.
2017 valedictorian, Jumi Kim of Roseland, graduated in January with a double major – economics and mathematical science-statistics.
“Find your specialty instead of just following the popular careers,” said Kim. “Try to pursue what you can do well even if it is a small thing, work at it, become better at it, and commit yourself. When you can differentiate yourself from others, you increase your value and the value of what you can become.”
Thursday’s Undergraduate Commencement was the second for Kean University this week. On Tuesday, May 16, the Nathan Weiss Graduate College awarded 662 advanced degrees at its 21st commencement ceremony at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.