‘I finally made it’: Columbia wraps up its commencement ceremonies for the 2022-2023 academic year

By Olivia Cohen, Editor-in-Chief

When Robin Jamkatel walked across the commencement stage on Saturday, May 13, he was relieved, a bit nervous but also really happy.

“Having spent so much time getting to this point, I can’t help but feel so happy that I finally made it,” said Jamkatel, who earned a bachelor’s degree in photography. 

Rajah Varnado, assistant director of New Student Programs, estimated there are close to 1,500 students graduating this year.

“What comes in this next chapter of my life isn’t exactly clear to me, but I feel like I’m ready to face whatever comes my way,” Jamkatel said. 

Columbia broke its commencement ceremonies into four parts, dividing the graduates by department. The college hosted the first two ceremonies on Saturday, May 13 and the second two on Sunday, May 14. All four ceremonies were held at the Arie Crown Theatre, a change from previous years when the ceremony was held at Roosevelt University’s Auditorium Theatre close to campus. They were also live-streamed.

In each ceremony Columbia administrators, faculty and staff spoke directly to the graduates. 

“Today is a celebration of your achievements and the validation of the power of your dreams,” Kwang‑Wu Kim said in his commencement address. “Class of 2023, as Columbia College Chicago graduates, I know you will find ways to make the world better, more sustainable and more human.” 

Noha Alhams, who earned a bachelor’s of fine arts in interior architecture, was the student speaker in Sunday’s 3 p.m. ceremony.

“Building one’s future is a never-ending project,” Alhams said. 

The commencement ceremonies were lively, with music and a classic Columbia moment when the stage party of administrators danced into the auditorium. The ceremonies featured a live jazz band and music students who performed in the graduation’s pre-show and throughout the commencement itself. 

Janell Baxter, the associate chair and an associate professor in the Interactive Arts and Media Department, served as the mace bearer in the last commencement ceremony for the year, which gave degrees to Art and Art History, Design, Music and Interactive Arts and Media Students at 3 p.m. on Sunday.

“The mace bearer leads the student procession into the auditorium, and as a faculty member that is truly an honor,” Baxter told the Chronicle prior to graduation weekend. “I love seeing our students celebrated and acknowledged for their hard work and talent.”

A mace bearer is an honor given in formal ceremonies to someone at a university who leads the academic procession at commencement. 

Baxter found out she would be serving as one of the four mace bearers from an email from Columbia’s Faculty Senate’s Executive Committee, which makes the selection.

This marks Baxter’s second time carrying the mace, which is the ceremonial metal statue with sculptured metal flames. 

Professor emerita Bobbi Wilsyn was honored as one of the two honorary degree recipients for this year and delivered her address at Sunday’s ceremony. 

“You should want everything … not only for yourself but for every occupant on this planet,” Wilsyn said in her speech, which she broke into song various times throughout. 

Wilsyn joined Columbia’s faculty with an expertise in jazz singing in 1981, where she taught for nearly 40 years. Wilsyn served under four Columbia presidents and “more deans that she can recall.” She was named professor emerita when she retired from the college in 2020. 

Chicago Tribune Editorial Page Editor Chris Jones was the other honorary degree recipient and spoke at the Saturday ceremonies. 

He told graduates to “banish imposter syndrome” and that they “are worthy.”

This commencement marks the first cohort of Columbia students who experienced the pandemic all four years of their college experience. 

In addition to the Star Spangled-Banner, Columbia’s commencement choir performed “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” often referred to as the Black National Anthem, at all of the ceremonies. During the second year of the pandemic, when Columbia’s commencement was again canceled, Columbia’s faculty and administrators performed the song on Zoom

Commencement returned in person last year.

This is the second year that the college offered a quiet room for attendants to make the loud, lively ceremony more sensory-accessible and inclusive. The sensory room included a limited number of sensory bags, which included headphones and fidget toys. 

Rachel Kearns, an aspiring filmmaker who graduated with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in producing on May 14, said she has been dealing with a variety of unknown emotions ever since putting on her cap and gown and holding her diploma. 

“It feels unreal that it’s been four years that I spent my life studying filmmaking and being a part of a creative community that I never thought I belonged to,” Kearns said. “I spent so much [time] figuring out who I am in this entertainment world while making long-lasting friends that help me and guide me to be the person I am now, and that all my decisions that I made in the last four years are the best decisions I have ever made.”