George Washington University’s graduation on the Mall was peaceful Sunday morning, with a modest protest against an honorary degree recipient that barely affected the event.
On a postcard-perfect day, not a cloud was in the sky or a protester heard as the ceremony began at 9:30 a.m. About 5,500 students received their degrees in front of an estimated 25,000 family members and friends while more than a hundred protesters seeking to discredit Mexican telecommunications billionaire Carlos Slim waged an orderly protest nearby.
Slim attended the graduation to receive an honorary degree along with “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams and internationally recognized artist Clarice Smith.
Williams, who went from being a firefighter in Middletown, N.J., to an award-winning journalist with 12 Emmys, sparked laughter as he spoke about his less-than-stellar academic career, which included community college, Catholic University and earning 18 credits at George Washington before dropping out.
“I like to say to people I was in a big hurry and I needed to go make a living, and I never looked back,” Williams said. “But the truth is, as the last college I attended, I look back every day . . . and it’s one of my great regrets. Don’t forget that by being here today that you have now achieved something I was not able to achieve.”
When Slim rose to accept his honor from university President Steven Knapp, a chorus of horns erupted from protesters, some of them perched on the grounds of the Washington Monument.
Despite the noisy gesture and a week of protest around the speech , Slim engaged the crowd with a soft-toned speech that sounded more like a homily.
“When you give, do not expect to receive,” Slim said. “God forgives our sins, but our nervous system doesn’t. . . . Many times you will make a mistake. It is human to make a mistake, but just try to make small ones.”
GWU officials said they chose to honor Slim for his community development efforts in Latin America and his extensive philanthropy. But critics call Slim a monopolist who crossed ethical lines in making his fortune and has not done enough to help developing countries.
On the Mall, 17-year-old Brayan Juarez held up a sign that read, “The Richest Man at the Sacrifice of the Poor.” His father, Ricardo Juarez, a native of Mexico now living in Woodbridge, said he came to denounce Slim.
“We are demanding that George Washington not give Carlos Slim an award,” Ricardo Juarez said. “As far as we know, he made money on others.”
From being held up by presidential motorcades to being locked in by snowstorms, Noreen Kassam, the student speaker during the graduation program, said students have experienced so much during their time at George Washington, and now it’s time for them to give back.
“Let us begin by impacting the lives of those who come after us,” Kassam said. “Take what you have learned to change the world. . . . I hope you do well, but more importantly I hope you do good.”
As she walked out with her classmates, Natasha Dupee, a resident of Southeast Washington, started to cry. Dupee, who is moving to St. Louis to be part of Teach for America, said her graduation is about more than just her accomplishments.
“This is my mom’s day, this is my grandmom’s day, this is for my family — I did it,” Dupee said. “Education is really important, and I have something to prove it.”