Opening Convocation: New Beginning, Continued Resilience

“It is wonderful to have our campus alive again as our community comes back together.”

Screengrab of Dr. Roellke speaking at virtual Convocation.
President Christopher F. Roellke, PhD

Those were the initial words from Stetson President Christopher F. Roellke, PhD, spoken from historic Lee Chapel during the university’s virtual Opening Convocation, Aug. 18, which marked the formal start of the 2021-2022 academic year.

“Opening Convocation represents the coming together of the Stetson University community to usher in a new academic year, to welcome the newest members of our community, and to celebrate our values and our mission, 138 years after our founding,” he said.

And, indeed, there was great optimism, along with much to celebrate, as Roellke continued, pointing to numerous accomplishment by students and faculty in the past year, all despite the challenges of a global pandemic. “I think many of you will agree, and I can safely say, this past year was challenging in ways we could not have foretold,” he commented. “But I have to say it was also remarkable because of the resiliency and sheer grit of our faculty, students and staff.”

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Convocation keynote speaker Ashley Rutherford

Later, Roellke introduced keynote speaker Ashley Rutherford from Stetson’s Class of 2012, who exemplifies such traits and achievement as a captain in the U.S. Air Force. In 2017, she was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force Biomedical Science Corps before becoming a public health flight commander and deploying to Afghanistan to serve globally. In June 2020, she returned to the United States to assist in the domestic battle against COVID-19.

“This past year and half has certainly been filled with many trials and more are guaranteed to come our way — this is the nature of life,” Rutherford said in her speech. “We must take the good with the bad, the blessings with the curses, the heaven with the hell. Whatever your trials, whatever your faith, I say to you: Survive, thrive and persevere. Keep moving, falling, crawling forward. Sure, it’s easier said than done. Surviving is exhausting, monotonous and painful, but as with most things, it becomes easier with time.

“The most dangerous place we can be is in our comfort zone. It’s safe and feels familiar, but it lures us into the trap of complacency. It stagnates our personal growth, stunts our human development and hinders us from reaching our full potential. Trials, on the other hand, stretch us to our limit, to, at times, our breaking point. However, in this stretching, this removal from our comfort zone, we often discover that our limit wasn’t as insurmountable as we imagined it to be, that our imposing, gigantic mountain was only a hill.”

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Professor Mercedes Tichenor, PhD, was honored as 2020-2021 Advisor of the Year.

Following Rutherford, Mercedes Tichenor, PhD, professor of education, was honored as Stetson’s 2020-2021 Advisor of the Year — in recognition of not only being passionate about teaching students, but also encouraging them to follow their own paths and become the best possible versions of themselves, according to Provost Noel Painter, PhD.

Finally, among other highlights during the hourlong ceremony, Hala ElAarag, PhD, recipient of Stetson’s 2021 McEniry Award for Excellence in Teaching, presented the convocation address to the university community.

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Hala ElAarag, PhD

ElAarag’s words: “If there are any silver linings from the pandemic, it would be the lessons we learned during this crisis. These are lessons we should not forget. We learned that unity, perseverance and mental health are crucial to overcome any obstacles.

“In a time of crisis, people either separate into chaos or come together to overcome their difficulties. The Stetson family chose the latter. We were all united in facing this crisis. We worked together — faculty, students, staff, administrators and parents. We learned that embracing the different races, ethnicities, religions, abilities and sexual identities of our family members make us stronger. We got through a difficult time as a family, and the trials we faced have brought us all closer together. Our Stetson family persevered.”

-Michael Candelaria