Glad students greet season of graduation

Ceremonies: At Morgan and Coppin, St. John's and St. Mary's, commencement brings feelings of pride and a desire to begin new lives.

May 17, 1999|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Kamal Cubas' mother had long looked forward to the moment her son would graduate from Morgan State University. But Angelica Cubas died of breast cancer almost exactly a year ago.

Yesterday, as Cubas and about 1,000 other students were awarded degrees in the hazy morning sunshine in Morgan's stadium, the 24-year-old marketing major wore his mother's gold-framed portrait hanging from his neck. He had painted his mortarboard with the red, white and blue of the Puerto Rican flag, a tribute to her Puerto Rican and African ancestry.

His mother, a licensed practical nurse, had dropped out of college to care for her first child, he said.

"She always said there could be no greater feeling of accomplishment than earning a degree," said Cubas, who grew up in Harlem in New York City. "She'd be proud today."

Cubas had to leave Morgan after his freshman year when money ran short. He skipped a semester and sold electronics items, returning with a new interest in business and switched majors from his first choice, political science.

Cubas said he plans to join his two brothers in launching a musical production company. "I want to put my degree to use," he said, after posing for snapshots with two nephews, Isaac and Ilijah McManus, 7 and 3, decked out in ties in honor of the day.

In a slip of the tongue that sent a ripple of laughter through the audience of more than 5,000, Morgan President Earl S. Richardson introduced the commencement speaker, U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, 66, as Maryland's "senior citizen" rather than "senior senator."

But Richardson recovered deftly, correcting himself and deadpanning: "That may cost me a couple of million dollars."

Sarbanes told the graduates of the 132-year-old historically African-American university that like many of them, he was the first in his family to graduate from college.

He urged them to accept their "responsibility as citizen-leaders of our American democracy" and "get involved in the problems of your day and age." He noted that the word "idiot" is derived from the ancient Greek word "idiotes," meaning a person who led a completely private life.

Sarbanes, a Democrat, said the booming economy has cut the unemployment rate among African-Americans to 7.7. percent, the lowest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping track in 1972. He praised Morgan's contribution to black economic advancement, saying it is graduating more African-American electrical engineers this year than any other U.S. university.

Though Sarbanes' pledge to be brief had been met with cheers, his speech covered a lot of ground. By the time he was recounting the fight in Congress over laws ensuring fair access to bank loans, a hum of conversation could be heard.

Ushers handed out fans to the elderly. Graduating students waved little orange "Class of 1999" flags. Someone fluttered a handwritten "Yeah, Leslie!" poster in the stands until a student, presumably Leslie, raised a triumphant fist in reply. A few foil "Congratulations" balloons got loose and floated into the blue sky.

After Sarbanes' speech, Richardson awarded honorary doctorates to him and to William L. Jews, a Morgan graduate and president of CareFirst Inc., formed by the merger of the Maryland and District of Columbia Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans. Bert J. Hash Jr., president of the Municipal Employees Credit Union and a 1970 graduate, was honored as alumnus of the year.

Other weekend commencement ceremonies included:

Coppin State College: At Coppin State's 99th annual commencement ceremony yesterday afternoon at the Baltimore Arena, about 500 students received degrees and heard graduation remarks from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Some graduate "cum laude," the mayor said, some "magna cum laude," and others graduate in a less distinguished category called simply, "Thank you, lordy."

Schmoke, a three-term mayor who said he was leaving this week for Ghana to attend a summit of African and African-American mayors, urged the graduates of the West Baltimore college to think globally.

"Think of yourself not just as part of a neighborhood, a city or even a nation, but as part of a global family," he said.

Borrowing from a speech he had heard, Schmoke said that if the earth's population were shrunk proportionally to 100 people, 70 would be illiterate. Only one would be a college graduate.

Coppin, which manages a local elementary school, "shines like a beacon of hope" in impoverished West Baltimore, Schmoke said. But it reaches further, too, with Coppin's choir scheduled to tour Korea and its baseball team planning a trip to Cuba.

The mayor, a graduate of Yale University, Oxford University and Harvard Law School, said he took pleasure in getting an honorary doctorate from Coppin.

"Now I'll be a Coppin man, too," he said.

Also receiving an honorary doctorate was Harlow Fullwood Jr., a much-honored former Baltimore police officer who owns several successful KFC restaurants and operates a charitable foundation with his wife, Elnora.

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