Sun shines on KU graduates’ smiles as they celebrate commencement

Chi Omega sorority members jump in front of the Chi Omega fountain for family members during commencement ceremonies Sunday, May 19, 2013.

The rain ended and the clouds parted just in time for Kansas University’s commencement exercises to begin Sunday morning, and it seemed meant to be, Joel Coon said.

“Just divine intervention here,” Coon said, looking up at the sky past the brim of his cap. Set to graduate from KU with highest distinction, he’d been chosen to hold a banner to represent all the graduates of KU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and he stood Sunday morning atop Mount Oread waiting for the rest of the graduates to assemble behind him for their walk down the hill to Memorial Stadium.

In between polite requests from parents for him to step out of the frame as they snapped pictures of their graduates next to the banner, Coon reflected on his time at KU. It was “fast but fun,” except for chemistry class, but he was ready to move on. Coon, from Topeka, plans to move to New York City this summer with an eye on eventually attending graduate school, after earning his degree in art history and anthropology.

He and several thousand new KU graduates took a few hours to mark their moving-on at the university’s 141st commencement Sunday morning, walking the traditional path down Mount Oread into Memorial Stadium before sitting for an hour-long ceremony.

There were smiles, sprays of Champagne and group photos galore. Attire ranged from suits, ties and dresses to shorts and flip-flop sandals.

Sunday’s proceedings were a time to cut loose and have a bit of fun, or at least that’s how social welfare graduate Catelyn Collins of Shawnee saw it.

Her separate School of Social Welfare ceremony Saturday was the time for buttoned-down, formal recognition. Sunday was different, as signified by the new cap she’d swapped in — this one with bright fabric flowers glued all across the top.

“This is my party cap,” Collins said.

And though her family waited for her down the hill, she said this day was about celebrating with the friends she’d studied with for four years. They’re the ones she’s sat in classes with for hours, after all.

Commencement is certainly a day for families, as well. Karen Ziska of Wichita drove up with her family to see her son Joseph graduate with a degree in sports management, and she staked out a spot along the roped-off path leading into Memorial Stadium, ready for the one-second window when she could snap a photo as he walked down.

She craned her neck, held her camera high, and finally yelled “I see him! I see him!” And she got her photo, leaning over the rope.

After the graduates made it to the stadium, they heard a speech from Wes Jackson, founder of The Land Institute in Salina and one of three honorary degree recipients recognized in the second year of KU’s honorary degree program. He made his address an environmentalist call to arms for the graduates, decrying reliance on fossil fuels, climate change and soil erosion.

He challenged them to stand up for nature the same way Kansans in the past had stood against slavery.

“My hope comes from you, because I know where you come from,” Jackson said. “You come from KU, in the heart of America.”

Jackson received an honorary Doctor of Science degree. Furniture artist Wendell Castle received an honorary Doctor of Arts on Sunday, and dancer and choreographer Karole Armitage received the same.

In a brief send-off to the graduates, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little touted the achievements of KU students and alumni in areas from business to government to sports, and she said this year’s graduates could expect the same.

“Your degrees are a mark of distinction, showing the world that you have what it takes to be a Jayhawk,” Gray-Little said.

With his degree in hand, theater graduate Chris Ramirez, from Kansas City, Kan., said he’s off to Los Angeles, where he’ll study for a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Southern California in pursuit of his dream to become a film actor. He came to KU courtesy of the Kauffman Scholars program, which pays for the college education of selected urban students from Kansas City, and he wore a red sash to note his status as a Kauffman Scholar.

He carried a poster on which he’d written “STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM,” taken from a song by the rapper Drake. He did that because he thought that reflected the journey he and other graduates had taken since their freshman years. Also, he wanted to be seen on the big video screen in the football stadium.

As he waited atop the hill, he imagined what it would feel like to walk down.

“It’s going to be majestic,” Ramirez said. “It’s going to be magical. It’s going to be heart-warming. It’s going to be well-deserved.”

When he got to the bottom, as the KU band played “Pomp and Circumstance” and the last graduates walked in, he got his wish. He and his poster were on the big screen, and he danced across the football field and into the bleachers.