A light drizzle greeted the Class of 2023 on Saturday (May 13), perhaps echoing emotions among 395 graduates and more than 1,500 family members, friends and other interested onlookers as they entered the Clemens Field House for the 108th commencement in the history of the College of Saint Benedict.
By the time they exited, however, the rain had ceased falling from the overcast skies. And those holding freshly minted diplomas flashed smiles all over campus as they stepped toward a bright – if somewhat uncertain – future.
Moments earlier, several speakers girded them for that with the general admonition that it’s great if you have a plan for what’s next – but that’s not a requirement for ultimate success.
Colette Peters ’93, who participated in the 78th Saint Ben’s commencement almost exactly 30 years ago, returned to deliver the commencement address. Like the graduates to whom she spoke, she admitted she felt some anxiety and uncertainty when she left the nurturing and transformational environment at CSB. Little did she know that her psychology degree would develop into a career that within the past year saw her named director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Selected for the job by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, Peters leads an organization in which 36,000 employees have responsibility for approximately 160,000 offenders housed in 122 federal prisons and 178 community-based facilities.
“After graduation, I charged into my future – full of excitement and a desire to change the world,” Peters said. “I became a juvenile counselor in Johnston, Iowa. Later, I became a crisis communicator for the Denver Police Department. That was one of my most adrenalin-filled jobs. I responded to homicides, suicides, domestic violence and conducted all the tactical communications for the city. And then I became an advocate for victims during their darkest moments. It wasn’t until then that helping people in need became my passion, my career, my purpose.
“So, graduates, what does that mean to you? Many of you may not feel ready. Some of you may feel overwhelmed. You do not have to know the answers about your future today. You will ultimately find your passion, your purpose and your focus … I never knew what was next. Work hard, give it your all and believe that you are doing what you are supposed to be doing. I believe in angels and daily miracles. Adult corrections was never my plan.”
But in 2004, as she and her husband, Lynn Snyder (a 1992 graduate of Saint John’s University), were expecting their first child, Peters got the opportunity to join the Oregon Department of Corrections as a public administrator. Eight years later, she took charge of the entire organization, overseeing a $1.8 billion budget, 4,700 employees, and more than 14,700 adults in active custody and tens of thousands more on probation, parole and post-prison supervision. She was one of three women to hold such a role among the 50 states.
“I came to believe that I was where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing,” Peters said. “What I was taught her at Saint Ben’s became so important in my career. I found my purpose. Now, Class of 2023, it is time to go find yours.”
Nursing, biology and psychology dominate this year’s class
More than 60 percent of the degrees for the Class of 2023, which was 21 students larger than in 2022, were concentrated in five areas: nursing (59 graduates), biology (51), psychology (49), elementary education (36) and communication (31). Julia Geller, who addressed the graduating class on behalf of its members, was a communication major and sociology minor.
“Whatever you’re feeling right now, it’s OK,” she told the audience, her classmates filling dozens of rows in front of the stage. “If you’re excited and ready to be done with this place and you have your path down, that’s awesome. If you’re sad, scared and fighting the urge to cry, that’s OK, too. Most of us are probably somewhere in the middle. There’s so much to say and so much we’ve learned. How do you fit all the lessons, triumphs and hardships we faced the past four years into a five-minute speech? Until two weeks ago, when I started preparing for this, I thought of graduation as the end of the world as I know it. But then I realized today is only the beginning.
“It’s a new stage of life. That’s exciting, and it’s also terrifying. Truthfully, that probably lies somewhere in between, too.”
Geller’s time at Saint Ben’s began at the start of her sophomore year, when she transferred from DePaul University. It was a homecoming of sorts as she grew up in St. Cloud and her mother, Mary, has been part of the administration for many years, currently as the associate provost for student success at both Saint Ben’s and Saint John's.
Julia made a name for herself as a founding member of the Interfaith Leadership Team through CSB Campus Ministry. She also served as the student director of the Institute for Women's Leadership during her junior and senior years. She intends to have a career in the non-profit sector.
In her speech, she congratulated her peers on being the last class to graduate with knowledge of what Saint Ben’s was like in the pre-COVID world, and of achieving their degrees despite the unprecedented challenges of a global pandemic. She said that experience proves they can match what the future can throw at them.
“Some of us today are graduating with a clear path forward and excited about what’s coming next,” Geller. “Others, myself included, are unsure of what the future holds. That’s OK, too. I used to think we spend four years in college so when graduation comes around we’d all know the right answers and we wouldn’t have any hesitation or self-doubt. But I want to tell you something that an important person in my life told me. You are still a work in progress. The end of college does not mean the end of our development as humans. It doesn’t mean we stop learning and changing and evolving. It doesn’t mean we won’t face adversity. But we are Bennies. We are intelligent. We are kind. We are courageous and passionate, and we are going to change the world.”
Bruess to graduates: The world needs you
Brian Bruess, president of both Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s, delivered a greeting after Aaron Voth, director of CSB Campus Ministry, gave the invocation. Later, before Sister Michaela Hedican, OSB, of Saint Benedict’s Monastery gave the blessing, Bruess also made closing remarks.
“We live in an ‘insta’ world – Instagram and all the things you want to know in 144 characters or less,” Bruess said. “The worthwhile life will not be easy, especially one lived the Benedictine way and built on humility, service and civility, and with persistence in search of the common good, awareness of God and generosity of spirit. The worthwhile life is one that is lived with a focus on whatever it is that sets your heart ablaze … there is no shortcut for faith, time, hard work and following the actions of what each of us believes is of value. Meaningful relationships, a good marriage, family, professional success – however you would define it – these things take time.
“Wherever you go, and whatever you do, you have forever membership with no expiration date to one incredible, indelible Bennie-Johnnie family. You are Bennies for life. Raise your voices and, with your power, I implore you to invite more people to the table. Avoid succumbing to the least common denominator of human instant gratification. Practice the art of patience and never compromise your character. The world needs you.”
Julia Geller, a graduating senior majoring in communication, deliver an address to her fellow graduates in the Class of 2023.