AVE MARIA — As he walked across the stage Saturday to receive his diploma, Sean Patrick Lee knew Ave Maria was the right choice.
"I didn't want to come here originally, but now I'm proud to be a graduate,"Lee said.
During the commencement, the university conferred 130 bachelor's degrees, 24 master's degrees and one doctoral degree. Honorary degrees were awarded to the Cardinal William Levada, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith at the Vatican, Carl A. Anderson, the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus, and Patricia C. Lynch, a member of the Papal Foundation.
As Ave Maria's seventh graduating class, the 130 graduates from the class of 2011, are the first to have spent all four years on Ave Maria's permanent campus. For some students, coming to Ave Maria was a calling, for others, it was an adventure.
"It was a challenge early on," said Jon Scharfenberger, a philosophy major from Warwick, N.Y. "There was no coffee shop and it was so bare. (Our class) risked a lot coming down here and we've been rewarded with so much. It was a blessing."
For the class of 2011, the commencement meant the end to one chapter of their lives and the beginning of another. The same could be said for Nicholas Healy, the first president of Ave Maria. For Healy, Saturday's commencement was the final commencement he would attend at Ave Maria, having stepped down from the post he held for 12 years.
"This is a year of firsts and a year of lasts," Healy told the class. "This is our first commencement in the new field house, our first year as an accredited institution, and our teams' first year in the Sun Conference.
"This is the last year I'll preside at Ave Maria University and what a honor this has been. It's a treasured memory I'll carry with me."
In the four years since Ave Maria's permanent campus opened, the class of 2011 witnessed many changes on campus. The faculty address, delivered by Robert McTeigue, a professor in the Department of Philosophy, recalled Ave Maria's past and challenged the students to take what they had learned with them once they left the university.
"Class of 2011, why would you let it get to this point where you would pack up and move away?" he asked the students jokingly. "Why would you want to leave the swamp, snakes, mosquitoes and pedestrian alligators?"
While students found humor in McTeigue's speech, they also listened intently as he called on them to live out their faith in the world.
"Why leave? Because it's time. You're ready to go on to the next thing God has prepared for you," he told the class. "The church and the world need you."
For the class' commencement speech, Anderson turned to the recent beatification of Pope John Paul II and told the class to look to the former pope for wisdom and guidance. As a supreme knight in the Knights of Columbus, Anderson has held several appointments by Pope John Paul II and was recently appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as consulter to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
"You are not just another graduating class entering into a new chapter of your life," Anderson said. "You are the generation of faithful, hopeful Catholics that John Paul II loved in a special way."
Anderson, like other speakers, emphasized that where the students are going will be trying, and to not forget their Ave Maria education.
"Become craftsman of a new humanity, where brothers and sisters can live in peace," he said. "That's John Paul's challenge to you. Follow this path with him and enter a world ablaze with passion, faith, hope and love."
As the students lined up to receive their diplomas, Deidre Harkins of St.Louis held a rosary in her hands. For Harkins, who majored in biology and theology, her experience at Ave Maria was one full of blessings.
"It's been such an important part of my life," she said. "This school has influenced me more than I expected and I cannot thank God enough."