Author Challenges Graduates at 161st Commencement

Susquehanna University
Azar Nafisi Susquehanna University

May 15, 2019

Author Azar Nafisi urged Susquehanna University’s Class of 2019 to pursue their passions, safe in the knowledge that their education awards them a “portable home” within their imaginations.

“In these times of crisis of transition, you are taking something away with you, something rare and precious—a portable home—and no power on earth can take it away from you,” Nafisi said. “As an immigrant, I find that this home is my only permanent abode.”

Nafisi delivered the keynote address at Susquehanna’s 161 st Commencement on Wednesday in the Garrett Sports Complex Field House. Nafisi is also a visiting professor and executive director of Cultural Conversations at the Foreign Policy Institute of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C.

“I discovered [my portable home] when I was sent to England at the age of 13, realizing how easy it was to lose everything that goes by the name home,” she said. “I made my place among my British and American kith and kin through Twain, Dickens... and Harper Lee.”

Nafisi was born in Tehran and completed her education in Switzerland, England and the United States. She returned to her native country of Iran to teach literature just as the Islamic revolution was igniting. She was eventually expelled, but went underground to conduct study groups with a handful of her best students—all of them women—to read and discuss forbidden Western literature. This experience became the foundation for Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, which became an international best-seller and illustrated the personal liberation that can be found in great books.

“Life imposes many limitations on us, but there is one place where you can be free of all the limitations of nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender and race and that is in the kind of republic that we call the republic of imagination,” she said.

Calling the American novel “the moral compass of American society,” Nafisi ended her remarks with a reference to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, pointing to the Finn’s decision to risk eternal damnation for the sake of saving his friend, a runaway slave.

“I would like to ask you, are you prepared to risk going to hell to do the right thing?” she said.

Nafisi received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from University President Jonathan D. Green. Former University President L. Jay Lemons and his wife, Marsha, and Peter Nunn, former vice chair of Susquehanna's Board of Trustees, also received honorary degrees.

Green conferred degrees upon 525 graduates in the School of Arts and Sciences and the Sigmund Weis School of Business. Co-valedictorians were Brianna Knowlton, a public policy major from Perkasie, Pennsylvania, and Julianna Whalen, a communication studies major from Shillington, Pennsylvania. Both graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA.

“We need Susquehanna graduates now more than ever,” Green said to the Class of 2019. “We need you to become voices for reason in your communities. We need you to be advocates for justice, for human dignity, and for the breadth and depth of intellectual endeavors.”

Faculty Earn Awards

Every year, the university honors three members of the faculty with awards for scholarship and creative activity, teaching and advising.  

The John C. Horn Distinguished Service Lectureship was awarded to Karla Kelsey, professor of English and creative writing, in recognition for her outstanding scholarship and conscientious service to the university. Kelsey joined the faculty in 2005. Since that time, she has built an impressive record of publications, including four books and two additional manuscripts in press. Each successive publication has expanded her reputation and recognition.

The Susquehanna University Donald D. Housley Teaching Award was given to Olu Onafowora, professor and chair of the Department of Economics. Since joining the faculty in 1989, Onafowora has established himself as a passionate teacher and prolific scholar. This past year, he led a joint project on inclusive pedagogy, the goal of which was to increase rigor and student understanding and success in economics. 

The Lawrence A. Lemons Distinguished Academic Advising Award was given to Andrea Lopez, associate professor of political science. Lopez has been an active scholar and an excellent teacher since joining the faculty in 2000. However, her work as an advisor has been truly outstanding. She has worked with a range of students across several majors with complex curriculums. She is known as a font of information, a sympathetic ear and a supportive mentor.

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