New SLU Grads Embrace the ‘Magis’ at Commencement and Beyond

SLU graduates grin with pride at Commencement 2017. Photo by Steve DolanSLU graduates grin with pride at Commencement 2017. Photo by Steve Dolan

For the newest alumni of Saint Louis University, 2017’s Commencement was not the end of a journey but a chance, in the words of a fellow graduate, an acclaimed SLU alumna and SLU President Fred P. Pestello, Ph.D., to start embracing the many possibilities of life beyond SLU.

New graduate Maria Walawender, the ceremony’s student speaker, described it as a search for the magis, or “more,” through interdisciplinary scholarship and social engagement.

“I sought the truth and the magis in my courses, activities and involvement,” she said. “Throughout my time at SLU, my search for the magis inevitably took me far beyond the walls of Xavier or Ritter. I looked in the depths of my conversations with friends … I learned from so many people who had no idea they were teaching me.”

Watch SLU's 2017 Commencement Ceremony

Walawender, who majored in public health with minors in theology and global and local social justice, has taken part SLU’s Global Brigades and was a SLU delegate to the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice in Washington, D.C. She will now go on to a career in global health work.

Speaking to the crowd of more than 10,000 Saturday, Walawender advised her fellow graduates to abandon “the tyranny of the ‘or’” and to replace it with an embrace of the “the genius of the ‘and’” as they make their way beyond their time at Saint Louis University.

“As I began to better understand my own passions, SLU encouraged me and showed me an array of possibilities,” Walawender said. “A mix of Ignatian reflection, Billiken support, and fresh perspective helped me to understand my true vocation.”

I sought the truth and the magis in my courses, activities and involvement.

Maria Walawender, the 2017 ceremony's student speaker.

Walawender’s focus on finding the magis in her life was echoed by Pestello. He told the students that their SLU education had prepared them to “use every opportunity to make ‘things the way they ought to be,’” from helping re-shape their beloved Billiken to stepping out of comfort zones to change the world for the better.

Commencement Speaker Diana Natalicio, Ph.D. (A&S ’61) described her own path in detail, crediting her SLU education with opening a world well beyond what she, as a 17-year-old switchboard operator, could have ever imagined. Since her own SLU graduation 56 years ago, Natalicio has advised the White House, visited Antarctica as part of research sponsored by the National Science Foundation and has attended the coronation of the King of Bhutan.

“Frankly, standing here before you today seems quite improbable, too,” Natalicio said. “Choosing to attend SLU turned out to be one of the most important and best decisions I’ve ever made.”

Natalicio described her work to catch up with other students on coming to SLU as an undergraduate. Her own experience, she said, led directly to her focus on increasing access to higher education. She was recently lauded by Fortune as one of the world’s top-50 leaders for her work at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), which has been recognized for its leading-edge work with marginalized and economically disadvantaged students. She has also been named one of the world's most influential people by Time magazine.

She urged Saturday’s graduates to seek out the unexpected and to strive to provide other with the same access to higher education that SLU students enjoy, calling the University a “critical crossroads.”

“Remember, too, that with the many benefits of degree completion come increased responsibilities,” Natalicio said. “Use your fine SLU education to do well, but also remember that you’re very well prepared to do good, too. Understand that the opportunity you had to study, learn and grow at SLU was precious. Don’t for a moment take it for granted; do all you can to share its benefit with others.”

Natalicio also received an honorary degree from SLU, as did Rich McClure, Rev. Starsky Wilson and John Padberg, S.J., during Saturday’s ceremony. Wilson and McClure were honored for their work as co-chairs of the Ferguson Commission. Padberg, also a SLU alumnus (A&S ’49, Grad ’54), is an internationally recognized scholar and author.

The commencement opened with the traditional processional, singing of the national anthem by the SLU Mastersingers and invocation by Padberg. Thomas Westfall, Ph.D., SLU chair emeritus and professor of pharmacological and physical sciences, carried the University mace.

Use your fine SLU education to do well, but also remember that you’re very well prepared to do good, too. Understand that the opportunity you had to study, learn and grow at SLU was precious. Don’t for a moment take it for granted; do all you can to share its benefit with others.

Diana Natalicio, Ph.D., (A&S '61), SLU commencement speaker.

Both Pestello and Walawender reminded graduates that to be a Billiken is to embrace a wider view of life head on after leaving Chaifetz Arena.

“Our time here has prepared us to be successful in our careers and socially conscious; to have big plans and big hearts; to be active members of our communities and sons and daughters of Saint Louis University forever,” Walawender said.

And, Pestello noted, SLU’s newest graduates being the change they wanted to see in the world meant living out the scholarly tradition and passion for change that their time on SLU’s campus fostered.

 “Graduates, as I describe our mascot, a deeply symbolic creature by nature, it is clear that the Billiken looks like all of us,” Pestello said. Such a resemblance, SLU’s president continued, comes with an unexpected, but significant responsibility. “For many people, imagining that they share features with the Billiken may be unnerving. However, when we believe we resemble a symbol of ‘the way things ought to be,’ we being to believe that we have the power to make things the way they ought to be – to make the world the way it ought to be.”

Commencement concluded with the University’s recognition of each college and school’s graduates and a benediction by Wilson. Following the ceremony, the University’s newest alumni gathered with friends and family outside Chaifetz Arena or grabbed snapshots with faculty and Pestello as they celebrated the start of their new paths beyond SLU.