Sunday, April 30, was a bittersweet day for Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa. The 120th Commencement began at 10 a.m. as the graduate candidates filed into Closson Center to be honored for the completion of their degree program. The ceremony presented something special as President John Sellars, PhD, CPA, presided over his last commencement for Graceland University.
The presidential torch will be passed after 10 years of service (2007-17) to Dr. Patricia Draves over the summer in anticipation of the start of the Fall 2017 semester. President Sellars greeted graduates, guests, faculty and staff expressing the pride this moment brings to student and parent alike. The ceremony opened with a welcome from five graduate candidates in their native languages. President Sellars pointed out the flag representation of many countries on stage and shared the impact Graceland has had on an international level to include the country of Kosovo.
Present to represent the diplomatic ties between the United States and Kosovo was Ambassador John K. Menzies, previous president of the university, who served as chief of mission in the office of Pristina, Kosovo, and chief of staff at the United Nations under Madeleine Albright. His influence made it possible for over 55 students to attend Graceland from Kosovo. Also in attendance was Brigadier General Drew DeHaes, Deputy Adjutant General for the Iowa Air National Guard; LTC Michael A. Wunn, State Partnership Director (Kosovo), Iowa National Guard; First Secretary Arbie Shabani; Consul General Gashi; and Kim Heidemann, Executive Director, Iowa Sister States. In 2011, the Iowa National Guard and Kosovo Security Force joined the state partnership program developed to strengthen international ties between national guard units and foreign military. Kosovo became Iowa’s ninth sister state in 2013, and the first diplomatic office in Iowa was opened in January 2016 in Des Moines.
President Sellars, along with Board of Trustees Chair Harry Ashenhurst, bestowed two honorary doctorate degrees with grace and familiarity. The first recipient, Zana Rudi, came to Graceland from the Balkans in 2002 at the age of 19. Zana shared her process of growth and the value of humility, “It is here at Graceland I learned to value and recognize meaningful work. I built resilience here that has helped me push forward both professionally and personally. I learned cultural sensitivity which is particularly important to my job, and I returned home from Graceland with a great sense of service.” Today, Zana serves as Kosovo’s ambassador to Panama.
The second honorary doctorate degree of letters recipient, Dhurata Hoxha, Minister of Justice of the government of the Republic of Kosovo and very proud Graceland alumna, gave the commencement address to the candidates. She shared that 13 years ago to the day, she sat in her seat, full of fear and uncertainty, but ready to go out and take on the world. Dhurata came to Graceland 17 years ago as a refugee from war-torn Kosovo and lucky to be alive. After completing her bachelors degree at Graceland, Dhurata was eager to contribute to the peace and stability of her own country.
She expressed, “I found something here extraordinary in the great community of Lamoni, which I proudly call my second home. A community that taught me the values of honesty, integrity and respect for community – where I found the American culture, values and traditions at its best.” She went on to praise the exceptional commitment of every professor and their impact on her life. She charged the graduating class with making this day the day they look to the future with hope and pride; to be their own individual story. She quoted Abraham Lincoln, “Whatever you are, be a good one,” and closed by affirming Graceland has equipped each of its graduates to be heroes and doers of their own lives.
With diplomas handed out and tassels turned, President John Sellars’ final commencement ceremony closed. The 2017 graduates, as well as every life touched throughout his tenure, will carry on through the accomplishments of their own lives the legacy of a presidency defined by success.