Whether they know it or not, new NAU grads have the power to be heroes if they only exercise it. 

“We have all these movies about superheroes coming out recently,” Claire Schonaerts, Northern Arizona associate professor of elementary and special education, told Friday morning’s commencement ceremony at the Skydome. “Humanity is in need of heroes. Why invent a Hollywood hero, when we have all the heroes we need right here?”

Nearly 3,000 students from NAU’s Mountain, online, Yavapai and Yuma campuses graduated Friday.

Schonaerts encouraged graduates to make a difference not only in their own lives but in the lives of others. She pointed to notables like Nelson Mandela, who fought against apartheid in South Africa, and journalist Nellie Bly, who changed working conditions for women and children and the care of prisoners and the mentally ill.

“For the last several years, you’ve focused on getting A's and B's. Now, I want you to focus on four C's,” Schonaerts said. “Communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.”

Consider the ways you communicate with others, she said. Choose your words wisely and with consideration for others. Value the gifts that others can bring to your life and job and collaborate with others.

Be the person who initiates the change you want to see in the world, Schonaerts said. Be a leader, be a follower. It takes courage to be a leader, and sometimes it takes courage to be a follower.

Be creative, for your creativity will spark creativity in others, and use the critical thinking skills you’ve developed over the last several years of your education, Schonaerts said. Do an unbiased evaluation of the information that you take in, the better to both assess the problem and the possible solution.

“Commit yourself to others,” she said. “You have the power to make a difference.”

NAU President Rita Cheng highlighted a handful of outstanding graduates during the morning ceremony, including Cindy Winkler, who waited more than 40 years before finishing her degree.

Life, raising a family and work all got in the way of Winkler achieving her dream of a college degree for many years, Cheng said. But she was finally able to achieve it after a lot of hard work through NAU’s Personalized Learning program. Winkler is now looking to apply for the Teach for America program.

Cheng also mentioned the mother/son duo of Sharon and David Despars. Sharon had promised her son for many years that she would enter college when he did. When he reminded her of her promise, she signed up for classes at NAU.

Sharon walked across the stage Friday morning to receive her bachelor’s degree in Logistics and Supply Chain Management. She returned to the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome in the afternoon to watch David receive his bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering.

“It’s an exciting time for you,” Cheng told the graduates. “It’s the start of a new phase of your life. You are now prepared to do more. Seek out new possibilities. Chase what scares you. We need your willingness to find new answers. It’s time to work hard and exceed your own expectations.”

The reporter can be reached at sadams@azdailysun.com or (928)556-2253.

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