By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 29, 2009
In most ways, yesterday's Southeastern University graduation was like most others in the history of the 130-year-old school -- grinning graduates, camera flashes, the solemn rendering of "Pomp and Circumstance." But the Class of 2009 was probably the school's last.
The tiny private school in Southwest Washington, long a home for lower-income or older students, is on the verge of closing or merging with another school.
Uncertainty about the school's future hung over the otherwise joyous occasion at Constitution Hall, as 310 of the school's 814 students received diplomas. Some had been rushing to take as many classes as possible in the event the school dies.
"It is a weird time. . . . We are celebrating it for what perhaps could be the final graduation for Southeastern as it was originally chartered," said Telaekah Brooks, dean of faculty and academic affairs for the school. But "we're focused on it on being a celebratory occasion."
Interim President Elaine Ryan lauded the diversity of students, who came from 39 countries and myriad backgrounds. Some were working parents. There was a mother-and-daughter team and a Nigerian immigrant who sometimes went to class after spending the night in a homeless shelter. Thousands of students from more than 90 countries have graduated from the school since it was founded by the Young Men's Christian Association in 1879.
The graduation capped a strange school year, during which Southeastern officials tried to maintain the school's accreditation and then, after they realized it probably would be lost, began to help students transfer. A summer session of 100 classes for students trying to finish up starts today.
Charlene Smith, 41, a single mother of two, loaded up with five classes in the spring semester -- child development, international relations, science technology, world religion and geology -- while working full time at a group home for mentally disabled people.
"It's been constant movement, nonstop," Smith said as a friend adjusted her gold, black and red hood. "It takes me three days to do a load of laundry. I haven't grocery-shopped or cooked since March. I've eaten a lot of McDonald's."
Southeastern is expected to lose accreditation in September, a death-knell for most schools, after the Middle States Commission on Higher Education concluded this year that the school lacked academic rigor, was losing faculty and enrollment, and was becoming financially unstable. According to the commission's report, 14 percent of first-time students seeking bachelor's degrees there graduate within six years.
Southeastern officials have been hoping to merge with the GS Graduate School, which provides continuing education to more than 200,000 students a year. Ryan has said she can't talk about the potential merger because of a confidentiality agreement; officials at GS Graduate said they are examining Southeastern's finances and operations and might make a decision next month.
Whatever happens, faculty members said, the District would suffer a blow if it loses a learning institution that has been part of its social fabric for years. It's a place where students who couldn't afford pricier schools or get accepted at some elite schools could find refuge, faculty members said.
"It's a sad, sad day," said William Rumsey, 61, an associate professor of public administration and criminal justice. "If nothing else, the school reached a special clientele of students. A lot of these students would not have been able to go to other universities."
Yesterday, excited graduates posed for a group photo on marble steps and were cheered on by family and friends. One had decorated her mortarboard in sparkle paint to read, "I made it!"
"I'm sad on one point and happy on the other," said Bonney Underwood Abbott, a retiree who received an associate's degree in child development. "It's sad because the school has been around 130 years, and it's an icon. But [to be graduating] at age 62, I'm very happy. When I was the oldest in my classes, I had my doubts. I had to buckle down and study, and I got a 3.78. I'm happy I did it! It's never too late."
Staff writer Susan Kinzie contributed to this report.