By Frances George
I, like many of you, will never forget it. Not because it didn’t happen, but because of the way it actually did occur…
Graduation was, for our daughter, Catherine, unlike her sister’s Baylor graduation in 2016 when Mary Scott received her first degree and different from 2018, when Mary Scott received her second Baylor degree.
Catherine is our youngest, and we were prepared to celebrate in large form in Waco. As many of you know, it is a momentous occasion when your youngest completes their undergraduate degree, when that last child walks across the stage, diploma in hand! So as many of you reading this can attest by your own personal experience, it was an incredible disappointment to hear in early March that Catherine’s college career ended (on campus) and then to hear there would be no May graduation ceremony.
So I went into high gear, “we-have-to-make-this special” mode! Once Catherine officially completed her classes and undergraduate course work, we trekked to the North Carolina coast for several days. Baylor flag, graduation cap and gown, graduation dresses, department honor tassels, temporary Baylor diploma, gifts with BU custom ribbon, “SIC’EM” cupcake flags for a party of four (though I have enough for a party of 400!) — all in hand and ready to begin the celebration!
I was determined to have a traditional graduation, even though it was to be held in a nontraditional setting… in the sand, by the shore, with Pomp and Circumstance playing as Catherine marched across the pier and over the sand dunes and stood beside the Baylor flag we firmly planted in the sand at Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina, on May 16 at 9:30 a.m. — the same time Catherine was to have graduated in the Ferrell Center.
It went off without a hitch, as you can see in the pictures. And I am sure across the nation, this was repeated by many families in the same situation. We even snagged a young mom strolling her child on the beach to snap the family photo. When I handed her the camera, I noticed her shirt. It said “MAMA BEAR!” (My name in Catherine’s phone is “Mama Bear.”) I chose to view this as a divine blessing on my efforts, and I smiled! So why do I write these words? Not because we were the only family that celebrated in this unique way. Everyone did something special. I write what you are about to read because what transpired during the ceremony on the beach represented the epitome of The Baylor Difference.
I knew, while planning the Baylor Graduation Part 1 ceremony, I wanted to make it more than a fun photo opp. I wanted it to be meaningful to Catherine. Through Catherine’s four years, there have been certain professors she has gotten to know more deeply than others, professors she respects as mentors and now friends. I can, without any effort, recall their names, the classes (some, multiple classes) and the impact they made on my daughter. She speaks of them often. I decided to send an email to these professors and ask if they would write just a few sentences that I could read to Catherine on her graduation day on May 16. These notes to Catherine would serve as the “keynote address.”
Remember: these professors were in the midst grading finals, submitting final grades, all within a pandemic that forced them off- campus, away from their offices and doing all this for the first time in their careers, I’m certain, in this unusual manner.
I immediately heard back from every single one and some, with notes so kind, that I actually included their response email with the letters they wrote to Catherine for the keynote address.
So there Catherine sat in cap and gown on May 16, on a raised bench in the sand on the beach, unaware of the letters about to be read to her. As I began reading the emails, emails that congratulated Catherine on academic accomplishments and, more than that, commended her character, Catherine grew solemn and head bowed. They spoke of her love of family from conversations Catherine had with professors through the years during office hours and in class discussions. One professor, in particular, spoke of Catherine’s perseverance freshman year, citing a specific example. He continued by saying, that without mentioning her name or details to students, he uses Catherine as an example to inspire every incoming class of freshmen he teaches.
As those words fell upon my daughter’s ears and into her heart, I thought, “Who is inspired now?” Catherine…and by this professor’s incredible words. The emotion was on her face with every letter… “They would do that for me? Write these letters?” She was clearly moved. I do not share this with you to elevate your estimation of my daughter. My daughter was not one of the academic or athletic stars highly recruited by Baylor in 2016 to help Baylor’s light shine more brightly on the national level. No, Catherine was a “regular” Baylor coed, so happy to have been accepted in 2016. She worked hard and did graduate with her department’s academic honor cords. But you have to remember, the word “regular” at Baylor doesn’t mean what it means at any other university. Regular at Baylor = The Best of the Best, Top Drawer, Outstanding Men and Women. The same is true of its professors.
There is nothing “regular” about Baylor students. And there is nothing “regular” about Baylor professors. They are all of a higher caliber, and they navigate life with a higher calling steering their ship. This distinct quality permeates Baylor students and its professors.
Catherine could hardly believe her ears, and tears of gratitude streamed down her face. Professors who are willing to take this kind of time to thoughtfully craft beautiful emails speaks volumes of the type of professors Baylor hires. You would be hard pressed to find one professor who would do the same at any other university in the nation. Catherine had five professors write this keynote address. And I could have asked five more easily! These Baylor professors knew my daughter in such a way that they could recall specific examples from two, three, four years ago in my daughter’s life, in their class, and they wanted Catherine to know she made a difference at Baylor. These were not generic emails written in a couple of minutes. One professor actually said he had tears in his eyes as he responded to my request, as he recalled the impact my youngest child had on him in his class, as he saw her perseverance and her academic accomplishment by semester’s end. It was one of the most moving letters I have ever received on any topic.
One person can make a difference and that difference is found at Baylor. This is the legacy of Baylor professors. This will, in turn, become the legacy of Baylor students.
And those cords you see around Catherine’s neck, they were not her original cords she received in the fall of 2019 when Catherine was inducted into the Communication Honor Society. Those cords were in Waco on May 16 in her home. Catherine thought for certain the Class of 2020 would be back on campus in late March after two weeks of online courses, and then absolutely for sure in May for graduation. And so, she left those cords in Waco as a testament of hope. When the plans unfolded differently, and she realized she would not have her cords for her Baylor Graduation Part 1 on the Beach, I emailed her professor and explained what happened but that she really wanted to wear her cords on May 16. Within matter of less than an hour after receiving my email, he Fed Exed a new set of cords to us…another example of how Baylor professors, even with so much on their plates, are willing to take the time for one student.
Catherine will walk across the stage on August 14 at 8 p.m., not in The Ferrell Center but rather in McLane Stadium. This time she’ll have her original cords… the symbol of hope realized! I know the ceremony will be meaningful, and the keynote and benediction will be powerful. But I believe that Catherine’s graduation on the beach will be spoken of with equal emotion to her children and grands, not because of my planning or her dad’s handing of the temporary diploma, but because of the keynote address from Catherine’s five most beloved professors. The words they offered, that I read, will be rocks of remembrance in her life, the Ebenezer upon which she can rest and remember that The Baylor Difference resides in so many places on that beautiful campus. But The Baylor Difference resides primarily within its people, Dr. Livingstone and her vision for our university, and it flows to the professors and students, and for a few fortunate parents, like myself, it flows to us. Baylor University is the difference the world needs. Especially now.
As I sat on campus just a few weeks ago, after bringing Catherine back to Baylor… back home… I snapped a picture of the iconic Pat Neff building on campus and posted it on my social media. I was reminiscing about our Baylor Graduation Part 1, looking with joy toward Baylor Graduation Part 2 in August and reflecting on all that has transpired in the last three months in the world.
So much uncertainty, so much upheaval, and yet so much hope.
My conclusion was this, and I printed those words on the picture before posting it:
“Even in uncertain times…Baylor remains.”
That is all I need to know. Baylor stands on Truth. Baylor reflects Truth. Baylor lives out the Truth from Dr. Livingstone to the professors and the students and to this undeserving parent who happened to brought into its amazing orbit.
It is, as I always say, The Baylor Difference — even in, especially in, uncertain times…