NBC News anchor Lester Holt was awarded an honorary doctorate during the Arts and Letters ceremony, and said Sacramento State opened his eyes to the world of journalism. (Sacramento State/Steve McKay) | View video of address
Roula Omary was honored with the President's Award during the SSIS ceremony. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)
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Nearly 5,000 students – including bachelor’s, master’s, credential and doctorate in education candidates – walked down the aisle in caps and gowns during seven joyous Spring Commencement celebrations May 22-23 at Sleep Train Arena. They now are members of the “Class of 3 Million,” as the CSU this year celebrates reaching 3 million alumni worldwide. (New alumni can sign an online yearbook at https://classof3million.calstate.edu.)
President Alexander Gonzalez presided over his final graduation ceremonies after 12 years as Sacramento State’s leader and, during the College of Arts and Letters event, he conferred an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree on NBC News anchor/reporter Lester Holt.
Holt, a government major, left Sacramento State during his junior year to work at a San Francisco radio station. Within 18 months, he landed a job at the CBS-TV affiliate in New York City and was on his way to becoming one of the nation’s most highly regarded broadcast journalists.
“I began with dreams of being a big-time disc jockey, but it was at Sac State that I was exposed to journalism, and it was there that my interest and my focus really narrowed in on becoming a news person,” Holt said in accepting the honorary degree from the president on behalf of Sacramento State and the CSU Board of Trustees.
“There have been many times over the last 36 years that I wished I had completed my formal studies, but I hold my head high, and I accept that things happen for a reason,” Holt said. “Graduates, you are sitting tonight where I never sat, and in a short few minutes, you’ll be walking in a place I never walked. I took a different path that has brought its own rewards, yet we do have something in common: Many of you will leave this institution much as I did, full of optimism with a very clear path and an idea of what you’re going to do and what you plan to make of yourself. And, like me, you’ll discover that life has a way of not exactly sticking to the script.”
Since February, Holt has filled in for suspended anchor Brian Williams on the NBC Nightly News desk. He also co-anchors the weekend edition of Today and anchors Dateline NBC. As a TV journalist, he has covered some of the world’s biggest stories, including the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil leak, the lead-up to the Iraq War and two hurricanes.
Holt is a graduate of Cordova High in Rancho Cordova. His wife, Carol, and his parents, June and Lester Sr., who still live in the Sacramento area, were in the audience to see him receive his honorary doctorate.
“I am honored, and I certainly accept this degree with deep gratitude,” said Holt, who noted that his father also attended – and graduated from – Sacramento State. “I am so proud to be and (to) have been associated with this university.”
Dean’s Award recipients
Jamie Rose, Arts and Letters (History) – Jamie Rose always wanted her education to make an impact. Her research on the Greek War Relief Association has uncovered significant and new material about how food and medical supplies were delivered to children during the 1941-42 famine in Greece. Professors in the Department of History characterize her as intelligent and determined, with the ability to make connections that other students can’t. She attributes her work ethic and perseverance to her desire to honor the memory of the twins she lost during her first semester at Sac State. She has been accepted to graduate study in Hellenic Studies at UC San Diego.
Michael Bloss II, Business Administration (Entrepreneurship and General Management) – Michael Bloss II embodies leadership. A founding member of the Business Honors Club and president of the Sacramento Association of Collegiate Entrepreneurs, he currently is completing his term as ASI vice president of finance, where he is responsible for creating a campus food pantry that will serve students in need. In addition, Michael helps fund his education and support his household by working more than 40 hours a week. After graduation, he plans to pursue his MBA and later a doctorate with the intent to create a service-based corporation and eventually teach at the university level.
River Smith-Sayer, Education (Deaf Studies) – River Smith-Sayer enjoys serving the community through education, advocacy and encouraging empowerment. Smith-Sayer works as a part-time American Sign Language teacher and volunteers at the disability awareness organization called A Touch of Understanding as well as the Sac State Pride Center. He uses the opportunity to speak about living with bipolar disorder and how he came to terms with his transgender identity in an effort to teach students to not allow the challenges of a disability or difference become a roadblock to living a fulfilling life. His aspirations after graduation include becoming a social worker for the deaf.
Reaa Ali, Engineering and Computer Science (Civil Engineering) – As an 8-year-old girl, Reaa Ali immigrated to the United States from Pakistan in an effort for her family to pursue a better education and bright future after her father lost his job. Reaa had to overcome many obstacles, from economic hardship to unfamiliarity with the American education system. At Sac State, she supported herself by working more than 20 hours a week while holding leadership roles with multiple professional student organizations. Before graduating in December, Reaa was selected as the Department of Civil Engineering’s Outstanding Student. She is now a civil analyst for a transportation-engineering firm.
Dao Yang, Health and Human Services (Speech Pathology and Audiology) – Dao Yang’s professors say his academic performance, along with his professional, collaborative and compassionate demeanor, serves as an example for his peers. He is active in the National Student Speech-Language Hearing Association and serves as vice president of Kappa Omicron Nu and campus club ambassador for Golden Key National Honor Society. He also volunteers with Sacramento Reading Partners and in the Robla School District, aiding children with a variety of communication disorders. Dao received a certificate as a speech-language pathology assistant from American River College and hopes to eventually obtain a doctorate in the field.
Aurora Marks, Natural Sciences and Mathematics (Applied Mathematics and Statistics) – According to her professors, Aurora Marks has established herself as one of the most dedicated and hardworking students in the mathematics program. She presented her results from a summer research project at the 17th annual Women in Mathematics Conference at the University of Nebraska and is currently preparing her work for publication. She also tutors at a local elementary school and in both the Math Lab and the Student Athlete Resource Center on campus. Her work has made a strong impression on the larger academic community, earning her an assistantship to the University of California for doctoral study.
Roula Omary, Social Sciences and Interdisciplinary Studies (Dietetics) – Roula Omary credits her passion for nutrition and her desire to assist her community as the driving forces of her academic success. Growing up as an immigrant in Kuwait and then settling in the United States, she pursued her goal of an education in science and nutrition, and has overcome economic and family barriers in the process. She is very involved in the community, volunteering with the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op and Sutter Davis Hospital. Despite the challenges of raising young children and English serving as her second language, she will earn her bachelor’s degree this spring. She wishes to obtain a doctoral degree in nutrition and chronic diseases, eventually pursuing a career as a dietitian. – Dixie Reid and Craig Koscho