By Jim Sheehan
Calling the more-than 500 assembled degree recipients of the Johns Hopkins School of Education members of “the next ‘Great Generation,’” Dr. William “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland, exhorted all to “aim high” in transforming our nation’s educational system and its communities.
Kirwan’s remarks during the school’s May 23 graduation ceremony at Baltimore’s Royal Farms Arena served as a stirring capstone on a day filled with remarkable superlatives.
After a warm welcome by Vice Dean Mariale M. Hardiman, Dean Christopher C. Morphew presided over his first graduation as dean of the School of Education. He launched the event in true celebratory fashion by taking a “selfie” from the podium with the entire body of degree candidates behind him in the sprawling venue.
In his opening remarks, Morphew counseled them on today’s sometimes daunting, systemic challenges and urged them not to fear failure. “As an educator, counselor or public safety expert,” he said, “you’ve been equipped with a set of conceptual, substantive and methodological tools that will serve you well and set you apart from your peers in the workplace. You are a leader, an exemplar, the future.”
The occasion marked the graduation of the school’s the first PhD cohort, as Jennifer R. Brodar, Stephanie E. Fakharzadeh, Sol Bee Jung, Elizabeth Kim, and Sooyon Youh Stiller received the university-wide recognition of Doctor of Philosophy in Education. It also marked the largest-ever graduating cohort of the school’s Doctor of Education (EdD) program, with degrees being conferred upon 41 candidates.
It was also the first year the school has capped off the big event with gala receptions after the ceremony. Doctoral degree recipients and guests convened for a lively reception at the Radisson Hotel, Downtown-Inner Harbor, while their bachelor’s, master’s, and post-master’s certificate-bearing colleagues, along with hundreds of family members and well-wishers, took over the entire club level of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Among the crowd of more than 1,500 family members, friends, and colleagues attending the event were 40 third- and fourth-grade students from Aiton Elementary School in Washington, D.C., who had come to see their teacher, Alejandro Diasgranados, receive his master of science in education degree. Diasgranados, a first-generation college graduate, had raised more than $2,000 through a GoFundMe campaign to make the trip possible.
Dr. Norma L. Day-Vines, professor and program lead of counseling and human services, received the Excellence in Teaching Award. Day-Vines, who joined the faculty in January 2012, was praised for instilling in her students “the requisite skills to deliver counseling services that value human dignity and the worth of all clients, irrespective of their individual differences.”
The school also recognized the contributions of a number of its illustrious alumni during the ceremony, led by Johns Hopkins Executive Director of Alumni Relations Susan B. deMuth.
Classmates Dieudonne A. Balla, MS ’15, and Katherine M. Leiva, MS ’15, shared the Outstanding Graduate Award, given to recent graduates in recognition of outstanding achievement or service in professional or volunteer life. The former Teach for America colleagues, who now teach at Florida’s North Broward Preparatory School, founded Fitlit, a nonprofit that blends fitness and literature to keep students healthy and engaged.
Rhonda Richetta, MS ’06, accepted the Distinguished Alumnus Award for her work as principal of City Springs Elementary-Middle School, a Baltimore City public charter school. Richetta’s leadership and use of restorative practices over the past decade has received broad acclaim for success in transforming school climate and reducing suspensions.
One of Richetta’s City Springs teachers, Wyatt Oroke, MS ’15, received the Community Hero Award, in recognition of his contributions as an inspiring teacher and his commitment to social justice. The middle-school English/history teacher and his class gained national attention earlier this year on the “Ellen DeGeneres Show” for their determined efforts to raise thousands of dollars for victims of Hurricane Harvey.
Joseph McGowan, MS ’02, received the school’s Heritage Award for Exceptional Devotion. After successful careers with the Baltimore County Police Department and Bethlehem Steel, McGowan was instrumental in the inception of the Johns Hopkins-Secret Service partnership and the Leadership Program for Police Executives. At the age of 78, he enrolled in the Public Safety Leadership division’s Graduate Management program, earning his master’s degree in management as one of the oldest students in university history.
The Woodrow Wilson Award for Distinguished Government Services went to Rhonda M. Glover, MS ’02. In a career with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) spanning more than 30 years, Glover has served in multiple leadership roles and is especially noted for her significant contributions to enhance opportunities for women and minorities within the FBI. Glover also serves as a mentor to recent School of Education alumni.
The Champion of Education Award was given, in absentia, by Dean Morphew to Dr. William and Mrs. Sylvia Cohen, a couple with lifelong ties to education and Johns Hopkins University. The award commended the Cohens for their dedicated work in early childhood education, which has culminated in developing early-literacy training programs with the School of Education and investing in faculty to help address the national crisis in early-learning achievement.
Student speaker Leila Warraich, who received her master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, roused her fellow candidates by invoking the words of President John F. Kennedy in launching the nation’s race to the moon. “With this privilege we gain here today,” said Warraich, “we have an immense responsibility, through our chosen professions, to serve our communities and to our future; our children. Remember, we do these things not because they are easy but because they are hard.”
It was a theme that also resonated in Dr. Kirwan’s speech. As chair of the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, often referred to as the “Kirwan Commission,” Kirwan has presided over the creation of sweeping policy recommendations to put Maryland schools on par with the best-performing school systems in the world.
Citing examples of decline in academic achievement in the U.S., Kirwan warned that our nation is “at grave risk, especially in an economy dependent on brainpower and a well-educated and highly skilled workforce.” For Kirwan, the challenge underscored the importance of the degree recipients’ commitment to transforming schools and communities. In closing, he praised their uncompromising efforts “to address our nation’s social ills” and their willingness to “aim high” and “work collaboratively for the common good.”