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Thousands of Sacramento State students – including bachelor’s, master’s, and credential candidates – walked in their caps and gowns during seven jubilant Winter Commencement celebrations Dec. 18-19 at Sleep Train Arena. For the first time, the ceremonies also were live-streamed for graduates, their friends and families. 

President Robert S. Nelsen led his first graduation ceremonies at Sacramento State’s helm and made good on his promise to shake hands with each graduate. A total of 3,578 students were eligible to participate in Commencement.

Nelsen, along with Provost Frederika “Fraka” Harmsen, also conferred an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters on community leader Joyce Raley Teel during Saturday’s College of Business Administration ceremony.

During his heartfelt, 19-minute welcome to the graduates and the thousands of loved ones and supporters cheering them on, the president said, “We are here today to celebrate. It’s a joy to look out and to see you and to see the happiness there. … Today is a proud day, a day we will always remember. Today, graduates, thanks to the faculty, thanks to your family, and thanks to your friends, you truly are ‘Made at Sac State.’ ”

Joyce Raley Teel receives honorary doctorateCommunity leader Joyce Raley Teel is hooded during the Business Administration ceremony by President Robert S. Nelsen and Provost Frederika "Fraka" Harmsen. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

Nelsen asked the graduates to remain involved with their University, to become students of the world, to make a difference in the lives of others, and to dream big.

“There are no boundaries,” he said. “There is nothing that can stop you. Don’t let that job you’re going to box you in. Don’t let life stop you. You are Hornets. You can do anything. You can do the impossible.”

Nelsen spoke of two students who overcame impossible odds to find success at Sacramento State.

Steffanie Eisenga, a 22-year-old senior majoring in social work, lived in four foster homes before finding her “forever family.” Her foster parents adopted her and, as of Dec. 21, she is Steffanie Kramer. She will graduate next spring and has applied for graduate school.

And the president shared the story of Nayeli Parra, who graduated Friday with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. She was homeless when she arrived at Sacramento State as a freshman. A group of students in her drawing class bought her a warm coat, and her professor found her an apartment, which faculty, staff, and other supporters helped to furnish.

“She’s no longer undocumented, and she’s no longer alone. Her (younger) sister will follow her and graduate from Sacramento State,” Nelsen said. “You students are amazing. You reach out and help everyone. You really care.”

He also noted that each day, the newly established ASI (Associated Students Inc.) food pantry provides free groceries to 90 students who might otherwise go hungry.

The president took a moment to read the names of nine students, eight faculty members, and four staff members who died this year. He recognized the graduates who were the first in their family to finish college and those who served in the military. And, many times, he thanked the faculty, family, and friends of the newest Hornet alumni.

“Commencement is a day of gratitude, a day when we can say thanks. No one graduates on their own. Everyone needs the support of someone else to be able to do it. Many had to make sacrifices so you could be here,” he said.

The president ended his remarks with his trademark cheer. “Do it with me,” he said. He stepped away from the microphone and shouted: “Sac State is No. 1! Stingers up!”

State Assembly Member Kevin McCarty was the featured speaker at Friday’s ceremony for the College of Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies.

“Getting to college and graduating is not easy,” McCarty said. “In fact, only 40 percent of the United States population holds a college degree. But you did it. You fought through. … I know, and you know, that lives are changed for the better when people have a college degree. … Each of you earned and worked for this degree to shape and change your life and the lives of your family.”

The California State University Board of Trustees and Sacramento State honored Teel, whose family owns the vast Raley’s grocery store chain, for “her commitment to the causes that benefit the people of California, and the Sacramento region in particular.”

“I never dreamed of having the ability to do these types of things in the community,” Teel said of her philanthrophic efforts, which include the founding of the Raley’s Food for Families program in 1986 – it collected 3 million pounds of food for local food banks just last year – and the Thomas P. Raley Foundation that she co-chairs with her husband, Sac State alumnus James Teel ’53 (Business Administration). “I believe these values have been the foundations of our success, and I believe they will be the key to yours.”

Teel encouraged the Business Administration graduates to look for ways to serve by volunteering, joining a committee or nonprofit board, mentoring young people, donating their professional services, and sharing ideas. “Serve with an open mind and open heart,” she said. “And when you give, do so expecting nothing in return.”

In closing, an emotional Teel thanked the audience for supporting her family’s company, believing in her, and believing in the city of Sacramento.

“Thank you for this most esteemed honor – my father and mother would be very proud of me today, if they saw me here on this stage,” she said.

All of the ceremonies are available to watch via remote playback on www.csus.edu/excellence/video/commencement.html. – Dixie Reid and Elisa Smith