For the first time in almost three years, the graduation ceremony was traditional in all aspects on Saturday, May 7, at the College of Saint Benedict.
On a breezy sunny afternoon, a crowd of approximately 2,000 people filed into Clemens Field House to celebrate a new class of 374 Bennies.
During their college experience, they persevered a global pandemic – including the shutdown of their campus as sophomores and the inconveniences of social distance and masking for much of the past two years.
“It has been an advanced course in resilience and ingenuity that most college students will never get,” CSB Transitional President Laurie Hamen, J.D., told them. “And for that experience, you are stronger. And the college is stronger, too.”
Thankfully, their last experience before walking away with their diplomas was virtually free of any COVID-19 effects or precautions after they prevented in-person graduation in 2020 (a belated joint ceremony with Saint John’s University was held in September 2021) and shifted 2021’s celebration to an outdoor event in Clemens Stadium at SJU. In all other years since 1996, CSB graduation has been celebrated in the field house. And prior to that, it was in the Benedicta Arts Center dating to the mid-1960s.
That was where this year’s commencement speaker, LeAnne Mathews Stewart received her accounting degree in 1987. Thirty-five years later, she is chief financial officer for Axia Women’s Health in Voorhees, New Jersey, and is the current chair of the CSB and SJU Boards of Trustees.
“My education and experiences at Saint Ben’s have allowed my career to evolve in interesting and exciting ways,” said Stewart, who has been a CSB board member since 2005. “I believe it is incumbent on each of us as individuals, in honor of those who forged the path before us and on behalf of those who will follow us, to embrace opportunities to lead and to demonstrate the power of women as leaders.”
In 2021, she was named CFO of the Year by the Philadelphia Business Journal. She related the story of what it was like when she first thought about serving in such a capacity. The position came open and she thought about whether she would seek the promotion.
“I knew that women can be hesitant to go after something if we don’t feel 100% prepared,” Stewart said. “But I also knew that’s not how career advancement works, nor how leaders are created and developed. You need to embrace the opportunity. Take risks. Trust in yourself.”
She did. She made a case for herself, showed she was the right person for the job and that launched her path to success. She said she knows some of the graduates sitting in front of her in their caps and gowns might feel uncertain about their own futures.
“Tomorrow some of you may wonder, and even worry, ‘What’s next for me?’” Stewart said. “The critical thinking skills you mastered at Saint Ben’s will provide the answer.”
The oldest of three sisters, she was the first in her family to go to college. Ten years after graduating CSB, she received her MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in 1997. And on Saturday, she received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Saint Ben’s in recognition of her achievements.
“My dad told me once when I was faced with a big decision that felt so important, ‘It’s just a decision,’ he said,” Stewart recalled. “’One of many you’ll make. Making a choice will allow you to make another, and another one after that.’ I ask all of you to consider his wise words as you venture forward. Do so without regrets ... My message is this: It’s absolutely normal to not know what the rest of your life is going to look like. Standing here today, I can tell you I don’t know what it looks like for me. But trust me. Being a Bennie has provided you the foundation to figure it out. Day by day. Experience by experience. Graduate today knowing you have what it takes to succeed in an unpredictable and complex world.”
Saturday’s festivities began with a 10 a.m. Mass at the Sacred Heart Chapel, followed by lunch at the Gorecki Dining and Conference Center, before the processional just before 2 p.m. The ceremony also included the presentation of the CSB President’s Medal to two long-time school leaders. Susan Palmer, who began her career as a controller in 1988, is retiring as vice president of finance and administration. She and Kathy Kurvers Henderson ’85, a 10-year former CSB trustee, received the honor for their dedication and service.
This year’s most popular majors included: nursing (49 graduates), psychology (48), biology (43), communication (30) and elementary education (29).
Regan Dolezal, who earned her degree in political science with a global business leadership minor, gave the student commencement address and captured the spirit of resilience her class has come to stand by.
“We got here together, piece by piece, quarantine by quarantine, 11:59 deadline by 11:59 deadline,” said Dolezal, who is from Woodbury, Minnesota, and recently received a Fulbright Scholar award to be an English teaching assistant this fall in the Czech Republic. “I hope you live a life you’re proud of. And if you find you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again. You have an army of fellow Bennies to lean on.”