May 24, 2003
Using words and song, folk musician and activist Peter Yarrow encouraged San Francisco State University graduates to strive to make a difference in the world through humility, respect and activism.
"I learned that my life was made meaningful when I was walking the walk of caring about others, when I was devoted to changing the world so that there was less suffering," Yarrow, a member of the famed folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary, told those gathered for the University's 102nd Commencement on Saturday. "I learned that all of what Peter, Paul, and Mary achieved in terms of recognition and millions of albums sold was very secondary to the extraordinary gift that we received to be a part of the struggles of this country to identify itself with social justice."
As he sang the group's signature song "Puff the Magic Dragon" he stopped halfway through and asked administrators, faculty members and other distinguished guests on the platform to stand by him and join in the familiar lyrics. Soon graduates and the crowd of more than 25,000 family members and friends gathered at Cox Stadium were singing and clapping.
"Puff the magic dragon lived by the sea and frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee. Oh, Puff, the magic dragon still lives, lives by the sea and frolics, and frolics in the autumn mist in a land called San Francisco University."
Yarrow also sang another of the trio's tunes, "Don't Laugh At Me," which is the central theme of his current passion -- Operation Respect, a project that works with schools and youth organizations to reduce the emotional and physical cruelty some children inflict on each other through ridicule, bullying and, in extreme cases, violence.
Commencement had a decidedly musical theme to it as rock journalist and broadcaster and San Francisco resident Ben Fong-Torres received the honor of Alumnus of the Year. Fong-Torres, a writer and editor for Rolling Stone magazine in the 1970s and '80s who has interviewed hundreds of musicians and actors, entertained the crowd with stories of his days on campus in the 1960s.
He credits SFSU and the experiences he enjoyed as a student writer for the daily newspaper with allowing his to impress editors at the magazine.
"And I got that gig, I think, because of the freedom that we had to experiment with journalism here at San Francisco State and the lessons learned from that freedom ultimately gave me an edge when Rolling Stone was hiring a new editor."
He also told students to stick to the principles they believe in.
And I'm hoping that your sense of what's right is not just what's right for you, but what's good for your friends, your family, your community and your world," he said.
The Rev. Amos Brown, senior pastor of San Francisco's Third Baptist Church, began the ceremony with an invocation that brought a rousing applause. He hoped that the graduates would take part in the struggle for justice, inclusion and equality of opportunity for all so that future generations could say, "I'm black and I'm proud. I'm brown and I'm sound. I'm yellow and I'm mellow. I'm red, but I ain't dead. I'm white, and I'm all right."
While more than 4,000 graduates took part in the ceremonies, nearly 7,400 students will receive diplomas -- the largest class in the University's history.
Student speaker Nelly Lau, a top honors student in electrical engineering who earned a National Science Foundation Graduate fellowship and will enter Stanford in the fall, had several words of advice for her classmates.
First, don't be limited by society's stereotypes, said Lau, who wants to be a role model for women in science. Second, learning is like rowing upstream, she said borrowing from a Chinese proverb. If you stop rowing, you are bound to go backwards. And the third bit of advice, Lau said, might be an answer for a world that seen tragic events in recent years.
"Almost all intentional tragedies are a result of misunderstanding, selfishness and hatred. We must resolve conflicts in a civilized way, with communication, compromise and compassion," said she.
The President's Medal -- the highest recognition SFSU can bestow and is rarely conferred -- was awarded to Bernard Goldstein, provost, vice president for academic affairs and chief academic officer at Sonoma State University, professor emeritus of biology at SFSU and CSU faculty trustee, for his years of dedication to higher education.
"Being brought back to campus today, back home, and being presented with the President's Service Medal has given me one of the highlights of my life. Many of the things for which I am being honored here today were my way of paying back and paying forward all that San Francisco State gave to me," said Goldstein, who received his bachelor's and master's degrees at SFSU and joined the University's faculty in 1968.
Robert A. Corrigan, the University's president, praised the Class of 2003 for its rich diversity, noting that a quarter of the graduating class had been born outside of the United States. And he hoped that graduates gained more than just a diploma.
"As you leave San Francisco State, I pray that you will take with you far more than factual learning," Corrigan said. "We have sought to give you lifetime learning skills and lifetime values."
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