By Bill Parry
St. John’s University held its 144th commencement ceremony on the Great Lawn Sunday with nearly 1,900 undergraduate students receiving their degrees and close to 10,000 family, friends and faculty in attendance.
A separate ceremony was held later in the afternoon for the 760 students who received graduate and post graduate degrees.
Australian humanitarian Hugh Evans, chief executive officer of Global Poverty Project, received an honorary doctor of laws degree and delivered a rousing commencement address. Evans’ commitment to eradicating extreme poverty began at age 14 on a trip to the Philippines as a member of World Vision, a Christian humanitarian group.
“We were taken to a slum that was built atop a garbage dump; two years later I witnessed even worse poverty in India,” Evans said. “After I returned home to Melbourne, I dedicated my life to eliminating world poverty.”
Evans began by founding the Oaktree Foundation, his nation’s first youth-run aid organization. He was named Young Australian of the Year in 2004. Two years later, Evans’ Foundation produced the Make Poverty History concert.
“I’ll never forget a phone call I got from U2’s manager asking if Bono could take part in the concert,” he said.
That was followed by the Make Poverty History campaign with a goal to raise public awareness to the plight of the poor, which resulted in a $4.3 billion annual increase in funds allocated by the Australian government to address the scourge of worldwide poverty.
Evans then co-founded the Global Poverty Project. The 2012concert in Central Park drew 60,000 people and raised more than $1.3 billion in new commitments to end extreme poverty.
That concert almost did not happen when a major bank withdrew a $3 million pledge because of its losses after the financial crisis.
“Sumner Redstone wrote us a check and Neil Young signed on as our headliner,” Evans said. “When there are 18,000 youngsters dying every day, failure is not an option. Perseverance in the pursuit of great dreams pays off.”
Evans finished his address telling the audience that you are never too young to do something great.
“William Wilberforce was 25 when he began fighting slavery, Nelson Mandela began his fight against apartheid and age 26 and Mother Theresa was 12 when she began fighting poverty,” Evans said.
Other highlights of the commencement ceremony was the posthumous awarding of the university’s Medal of Honor to Pamela Shea-Byrnes, who died Christmas Eve morning. Shea-Byrnes graduated from St. John’s and later returned to serve as vice president for university ministry.
Brenna Beluk, Class of 2014, followed with an entertaining student address.
“We are not Gerber babies, we are Google babies,” she said. “We are part of the most educated generations in American history.”
Beluk added that her class’s education was augmented by witnessing a changing New York City with their own eyes.
“We saw as street art was swept away so that condos could replace 5Pointz,” she said.
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at [email protected] of by phone at 718-260-4538.