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SJU’s Class of 2023 called upon to be forces for good in the world

As the graduating class of 2023 at Saint John’s University and the Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary gathered on Mother’s Day (May 14) in the Abbey and University Church for the school’s 166th commencement exercises, they were movingly transported back to another Mother’s Day 29 years ago.

That was when Kurt Vickman, a 1994 SJU graduate who delivered this year’s commencement address, stood in the same spot receiving his own diploma. He showed the graduates, faculty, family and friends gathered Sunday a photo of his mother Diane and him taken that day — just under-a-year-and-a-half before her death at age 50 in October 1995 after a long battle with cancer.

Vickman told the 332 SJU graduates and 23 graduates of SOT that he had visited his mother’s tombstone earlier in the day. He paid special attention to the dash that separated her date of birth from the date she passed away.

“We have no control over the day we’re born,” said Vickman, who in 2011 founded Good Grocer, the nation’s first volunteer-powered grocery store located in South Minneapolis.

“We have little or no control over the day we’re going to die. The only thing we have control over is that little, tiny, often overlooked and underestimated dash. And it’s within that tiny, little dash that we have to cram all our living and loving and giving and purpose and passion and relationships.

“So the question becomes … what are you going to do with your dash? Or said more specifically, how are you going to harness all of the gifts and goodness that have been buried into the DNA of your design to be a force for good in the world?”

The Good Grocer now has more than 500 volunteers who work monthly as cashiers, baggers and stockers in exchange for a 20% savings on their groceries. Vickman is also the founder of the Upper Room community, which was started in 2002 in the belief that a church should not just be focused on educating people, but also on engaging them to be forces for good in the world.

It is that same mission he laid out for this year’s group of graduates as they leave Collegeville and begin their own journeys into the world beyond.

“Start considering that which troubles you, that which keeps you up at night, that which stirs you in the deepest kind of way,” he said. “Use that to focus you to become the fuel behind you being a force for good in the world.

“You look out at all of the stuff that’s wrong in the world. Guess what the strategy is to fix all that stuff? It’s you.”

Those sentiments were echoed by senior Durran Thompson in his address to his fellow graduates. He noted some of the challenges this year’s class has faced during their time at SJU, most notably the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced campus to shut down in March of their first year, meaning they had to complete the second semester through distance learning.

And even after in-person classes resumed in the fall of 2020, masks, social distancing and having to keep an ever-watchful eye on COVID numbers became regular features of life on campus. Yet, Thompson noted the experience taught them the importance of resilience.

“While COVID may have eaten away at our physical time on campus, it did not take away from the lessons that we’ve learned,” said Thompson, an international student from The Bahamas, who served as Saint John’s Student Senate President this past school year. “And the biggest lesson is that good things take time.”

Thompson, an accounting and finance major, asked his classmates to apply those lessons as they embark on post-college life.

“The goal is not to be quick, it’s not to be average, and it’s surely not to be ordinary,” he said. “It’s to be exceptional. At the end of it all, that’s why we are Johnnies.

“Being a Johnnie is not just about the academic rigor, but also about the relationships we’ve built, the values we live by and the impact we’ve had on the world around us.”

Brian Bruess, the joint president of both Saint John’s and the College of Saint Benedict, reminded graduates of The Link — the bus service that has so often transported them back and forth between the two campuses in their four years here.

“I want you to think about your Bennie-Johnnie family every time you see a bus,” Bruess said.

“The unique something you all share (is) the knowledge that wherever you go and whatever you do, you have forever membership with no expiration date in one incredible, indelible Bennie Johnnie family,” he continued. “It’s a powerful, inspiring thing the way Bennies and Johnnies show up for each other over the course of their lives.

“Wherever you go in this world, you are never alone. You are a Johnnie for life.”

Some further notes on Sunday’s ceremony and SJU’s class of 2023:

  • The most popular majors in this year’s graduating class at SJU were global business leadership (80), accounting (58), computer science (26), biology (24) and economics (15).
  • Sunday’s invocation was delivered by John Klassen, OSB, the Abbot of Saint John’s Abbey. He was followed by a welcome from LeAnne Matthews Stewart, a 1987 CSB graduate and the chair of the SJU Board of Trustees.

SJU Commencement speaker

Kurt Vickman ’94 gives the commencement address on Sunday, May 14, at Saint John’s University.

Durran Thompson

Durran Thompson addresses his fellow graduates on Sunday, May 14, at the Saint John’s Abbey Church.

Brian Bruess, president of SJU and CSB

Brian Bruess, president of Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict, presents one of 332 graduates their diploma on Sunday, May 14, at the Saint John’s Abbey Church. Another 23 graduates from the Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary also participated in the annual rite.