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Eckerd College celebrates its 61st Commencement with address from bestselling author alumna

By Robbyn Hopewell
Published May 22, 2024
Categories: About Eckerd, Academics, Alumni, Awards, Students

Forecasted rain threatening to dampen an idyllic outdoor ceremony delivered just a few droplets as more than 350 Eckerd College seniors participated in the institution’s 61st Commencement on May 19.

The event kicked off at 8 a.m. with a grand procession from Hough Quad to a tent filled with nearly 5,000 family and friends on South Beach Field.

Faculty Marshall Mary Meyer McAleese, Ph.D., bore the ceremonial mace while the students, faculty, executive staff and trustees found their respective places to begin the celebration.

The procession arrives at the large tent where families await. Photo by Penh Alicandro ’22

President Jim Annarelli, Ph.D., offered a warm welcome to the graduates who he acknowledged had entered, as first-year students, a very different campus than they were leaving behind.

“In the face of the challenges of the pandemic, you adapted and, indeed, thrived,” Annarelli said. “At the end of this ceremony, you will march off to show the world that Eckerd College changes lives, and Eckerd College graduates change the world.”

The New York Times bestselling author and Eckerd alumna Ashley Rhodes-Courter ’07, LCSW, addressed the Class of 2024, saying she was thrilled to be back on what she described as a considerably upgraded campus.

“I can’t help but feel personally responsible for the questionable forecast and dicey weather. You see, during the first few weeks of my freshman year, the campus was evacuated four times for major hurricanes,” Rhodes-Courter explained. “I thought that was a disruptive way to start college, but it is nothing compared to the hurdles these graduates leapt while navigating a global pandemic. Life is full of micro- and macro-disruptions. We would love for our days to remain in sync with our planning, ideas or wishes. Instead, we must be prepared to embrace the discomfort of disruption and see it as a catalyst for change and innovation.”

Rhodes-Courter challenged the graduates to embrace life’s disruptions and find the positives in adversity.

A graduate dons a decorated mortar board. Photo by Lisa Presnail

“You get to decide for yourselves what you want your life to look like. I encourage you to maintain a flexible growth mindset that will allow you to transcend barriers,” she said. “Be creative. Be open to possibilities that you have yet to imagine.”

The faculty and trustees granted Rhodes-Courter an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree—the first of several awards presented at the ceremony.

Trustee Emeritus Helmar E. Nielsen was awarded the inaugural Helmar E. Nielsen Medal, the highest honor bestowed on an individual by Eckerd College, which recognizes those who have demonstrated exceptional devotion to the College and to its mission of undergraduate liberal arts education through extraordinary service, advocacy and generosity. Nielsen’s gifts to Eckerd over the years have made him the namesake of The Helmar and Enole Nielsen Center for Visual Arts and the Nielsen Center for the Liberal Arts—as well as established an endowed professorship, the Christian Nielsen Professorship in Film Studies, which was named in memory of his brother.

Associate Professor of Marine Science Amy NS Siuda, Ph.D., received the John Satterfield Outstanding Mentor Award, which honors the special and vital role of the mentor in a student’s life at Eckerd.

Commencement speaker Ashley Rhodes-Courter ’07, photo by Lisa Presnail

The Class of 2024, photo by Lisa Presnail

But the lifeblood of the ceremony flowed with the contributions from—and honors bestowed upon—the graduates themselves.

Ash Murphy ’24, an anthropology graduate from Ansonia, Ohio, read the College’s land acknowledgment to kick off the ceremony.

A quartet of graduates—Isabelle Margaret Clemons ’24, Graham Scott Hempstead ’24, Colette Estelle Rybinski ’24 and Benjamin Kenneth Stolarczyk ’24—offered a harmonic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Four Tritons were honored with faculty-selected awards: Aarushi Gandhi ’24, a biology graduate from Bangalore, India, received The Philip Lee Honor Award for scholarly achievements and superior future promise; Ava Marie McLeod ’24, a marine science and French graduate from Wylie, Texas, received The James H. Robinson Award for contributions to the experience of underrepresented students at Eckerd and a fuller appreciation of cross-cultural values throughout the whole Eckerd community; Madalyn Ryan ’24, a political science graduate from Denver, Colorado, received The Ronald Wilson Memorial Award for significant contributions to the total College community; and Andrew Kennedy ’24, an anthropology and animal studies graduate from Ann Arbor, Michigan, received The Miller Award for life activities that best exemplify the ideal of unselfish and public-spirited service to the community, off campus as well as on campus.

To represent them at the podium, the Class of 2024 elected Bradley Steven Case ’24, an environmental studies and communication graduate from Howard City, Michigan, to offer greetings.

“I believe that it is through the power of collective action and community that we will persevere,” Bradley explained.

The inaugural Helmar E. Nielsen Medal, the highest honor bestowed on an individual by Eckerd College, photo by Penh Alicandro ’22

“This means we must transcend the constructs of gender, race, ethnicity and class and recognize that climate change affects each and every one of us despite our differences. The fight against climate change has only just begun, and if we are to foster a more sustainable future, it must be done as a community.”

Newly minted graduates cool off in the waters off South Beach. Photo by Lisa Presnail

He encouraged his fellow graduates to keep moving forward into the world of unknowns.

“Walking across this stage means walking into the next chapter of our lives,” Bradley concluded. “There will be new struggles, new adventures and new characters, but there will also always be the pages that came before. Do not overlook the importance of the communities and calluses you have formed, and do not forget them as your story continues.”

Watch the full ceremony and read the remarks and more about award winners at