New traditions, inspiring moments mark UArts’ 145th Commencement ceremony

May 24, 2023

On Thursday, May 18, University of the Arts celebrated the accomplishments of the Class of 2023 during the university’s 145th Commencement with a unique blend of tradition, music and revelry. A total of 406 students received degrees during the ceremony, the last to be overseen by UArts’ President and CEO David Yager before his retirement in June.

Led by hardworking Philadelphia band Snacktime and Associate Professor of Fine Arts Mark Campbell, who served as the grand marshal, the procession of students, faculty and honored guests strode down Broad Street Thursday morning to the city’s celebrated Academy of Music, where family and supporters awaited its arrival. Once the graduates were seated, the university opened the proceedings with a new tradition recommended by the university’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Committee: the reading of a land acknowledgment that recognizes that UArts sits upon the ancestral homeland of the Lenape people.

The committee’s suggestions for enhancing Commencement also included a moving rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a hymn written by former NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson in 1900 that is widely regarded as the Black national anthem. It was performed by graduating seniors Shawn Bobien BM ’23 (Instrumental Performance) and Aaron Hill BM ’23 (Vocal Performance).

The university’s work in pursuit of a more inclusive campus was the focus of President Yager’s remarks, and he urged the graduating class to carry the ideals instilled within them during their time at UArts and to be catalysts who enact the change they wish to see in their world. He also invited Stephen Cirino, director for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility to join him at the podium to present the university’s recently approved Inclusion and Diversity statement.

“Among the many accomplishments we have achieved as a community, through our shared values of compassion and collaboration, the incredible work we have engaged in to make University of the Arts a welcoming place for everyone is perhaps the most meaningful,” President Yager said. “Every person in this room, whether they are seated on stage, helping behind the scenes, or among our audience, has played a critical role in supporting the most vulnerable members of our community.”

Jeanne Dickenson BFA ’23 (Illustration) was selected to serve as this year’s valedictory speaker. Reflecting on identifying as the “art kid” during high school, Dickenson spoke at length about finding a community at UArts and the joy of entering the creative world with fellow graduates.

“There will be a day in the future when a prospective student is choosing which art school to attend. They’ll see us listed as the accomplished alumni of the University of the Arts, and that will be the deciding factor,” Dickenson said. “We have spent our time at this school looking to the future, and now we are the future. I look forward to what’s to come of all of us ‘creative kids.’”

The presentation of honorary degrees, a tradition that dates back centuries, continued at Commencement, and three influential figures were honored with Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degrees. This year, the university recognized alum, artist, curator and author Deborah Willis BFA ’75 (Photography) as well as Michael Forman and Jennifer Rice, the husband and wife team who founded the Forman Arts Initiative to support the Philadelphia region’s artists.

In addition, the university presented students and alumni with a number of awards. Nine students received the President’s Awards for Excellence in recognition of their academic and artistic excellence, each of which carries a $1,000 prize. Faculty members Krista Apple and Lauren Whearty also received distinguished teaching awards, which were presented by Vice President for Academic Affairs Carol Graney.

Following a warm welcome from the Alumni Association delivered by Nijel Taylor BFA ’14 (Graphic Design), who is a creative director at New York–based strategy and design firm Siegel+Gale, Silver Star alumni awards were presented to Dotty Attie BFA ’59 (Art Education) and Clayton Reilly BM ’06 (Instrumental Performance), MAT ’21 (Music Education).

In typical UArts fashion, Commencement ended with the turning of the graduates’ tassels and an energetic performance by a samba band and dancers, who led the crowd back to Hamilton Hall. The sea of sequins, colors and carefully decorated mortarboards along Hamilton’s famous exterior staircase caused Philadelphians from all walks of life to stop along Broad Street and join the celebration. Spotted among them was former Philadelphia 76er Matisse Thybulle, who just happened to be riding by on his bike.