To the chords of “Pomp and Circumstance,” Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards, wearing Southern University’s robes and cap, quietly led a dignified procession of administrators and faculty.
Parents and family saved their applause and cheers for when the nearly 500 students graduating Friday at Southern University Baton Rouge’s fall commencement entered the F.G. Clark Activity Center.
Edwards, who will be inaugurated in four weeks on Jan. 11, gave an almost campaign-style speech for the commencement. During his 12-minute talk, Edwards reminded the audience members of his work protecting Southern University and thanked them for supporting him.
He referred to the several double-digit tuition increases over the past few years and said it was unacceptable that on such a joyous day for students and their families to think about debt.
Edwards pointed out that Southern’s chief student marshal, Imani M. Williams, grew up in West Palm Beach, after her parents moved to Florida to find better opportunities.
At least the Williams family sent their daughter back to Southern for her education, Edwards said.
“I will make Louisiana rich with opportunities,” Edwards said. “I make that commitment today.”
Unlike most commencement speakers, Edwards stuck around to shake hands with new graduates. He had to leave early, however, to attend an annual luncheon at the Greater Baton Rouge Building & Trades union, where he ate smoked chicken and jambalaya.
Like most of the students receiving their master’s degrees Friday, Dustin Miller spent hours writing reports and studying for classes.
Unlike most graduate students, however, Miller was doing most of that work while campaigning for a seat in the Legislature representing Opelousas. “Yeah, I was in the car studying” in between campaign appearances, Miller said, “looking over my reports in between knocking on doors.”
Miller, who enthusiastically backs Medicaid expansion, is a practical nurse who is the first — and often in rural areas, the only — medical professional a patient sees.
Miller said Edwards phoned him the night he graduated to congratulate his victory, and the governor-elect mentioned him during his commencement speech.
Jasmin White, of Baton Rouge, arrived on the Southern campus wanting to be a reporter and started studying mass communications. She took a job working in foster care and discovered that her real calling was helping children who come from abusive and neglectful homes.
“I saw the need, and I saw that I could help,” White said. She graduated with a degree in social work and will work for the state.
She was excited by the prospect of hearing Edwards speak.
“I voted for him,” White said, beaming. “I felt like his platform would most benefit my family.”
Alvertha Pierce, a single mother whose parents never got out of elementary school, went to technical school after being laid off. Her four young children helped with chores and sacrificed their wants to help their mother become the first person in their family to earn a degree. She’s now an X-ray technician.
The entire time, Pierce said she pressed upon her children the need to do well in school and to go to college “so you don’t have to struggle like this.”
Pierce drove over the Atchafalaya Basin from Cecilia on Friday morning to watch the third of her four children, Hillary, graduate. (The fourth is in school now.)
Hillary is receiving her degree in political science and is applying to law schools.
While talking to a reporter, Pierce received a photo from Hillary on which she texted, “Momma, we made it!” bringing tears to Pierce’s eyes.
Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog.