May 20, 2023
Catherine Pierce loves words. As the poet laureate of the state of Mississippi, that should come as no surprise. During her remarks to Susquehanna University’s Class of 2023, she chose one of her favorite words — leap.
As the 2000 alumna delivered the keynote address at Susquehanna University’s 165th Commencement, she contemplated on the word leap and its meanings — both literal and metaphorical.
“Leap is a particularly lovely word. It sounds, somehow, like what it suggests, the way giraffe sounds like it has a long neck or laugh always looks like it’s laughing. Leap is a graceful word, an elegant word,” Pierce said. “But sometimes what something sounds like isn’t exactly what it is.”
Leaps can be “messy, ungainly, awkward,” Pierce went on. And so it may be with the leap the Class of 2023 stands ready to make. Like the graduates before her, Pierce was facing her own leap 23 years ago. She was poised to attend graduate school — the only one that accepted her. Upon her arrival she was confronted by writers who (she believed) “had sprung from the womb writing stellar poems.” And she knew no one.
“I was flailing all over the place. But gradually — so gradually I didn’t notice it happening — my flailing slowed,” she said. “And by the time I graduated, I felt comfortable. At least for a little while. The leaping never ends. There is always uncertainty. We will always, thankfully, have things we wonder about, questions we want to explore.”
After graduating from Susquehanna, Pierce went on to earn her master’s degree from Ohio State University in 2003 and her doctorate from the University of Missouri in 2007. She is professor of English and co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University. In 2021, the governor of Mississippi appointed Pierce as the state’s official poet laureate through 2025.
Pierce imparted some well-earned advice to her soon-to-be fellow alumni: Pay attention. The hard times aren’t forever. Time is precious. Meet others with empathy and generosity.
“And maybe, either now or down the road, you’ll want to take a break from leaping for a little while. Do that. Without rest, leaping can’t happen. Without leaping, nothing happens,” Pierce said. “And after you’ve rested, you’ll leap again. And you’ll do it awkwardly and flailingly, which is to say, you’ll do it beautifully.”
Challenges Faced and Overcome
Also offering remarks at Susquehanna’s Commencement was Arianna Sivio ’23 of Dayton, Ohio, who graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in political science and public policy. She also served as president of Student Government Association.
“Just as we got acclimated to our new environment those few short years ago, the world stopped spinning,” Sivio said. “Many of us felt robbed of our time when we returned to campus, but instead of dwelling, we decided to show Susquehanna University that if there was one thing to be true about the Class of 2023, it would be that we were a class of trailblazers and resilient leaders.”
They have faced the unthinkable together, Sivio said, and led each other through national tumult.
“In our time together, we made it through a tumultuous election; we came together to protect democracy; joined hands and raised our voices for women’s rights and autonomy, climate change, racial and social justice, and so many other movements,” Sivio said. “Through it all, we have proved that we are a force to be reckoned with.”
Sivio urged her fellow classmates to seek out their own version of perfection.
“Remember that perfection looks different for everyone. Take that job in a new city, even if you will be all alone; move back home and relish in one last summer with your mom; go to grad school and chase your dream of becoming all that you are meant to be,” Sivio said. “Whatever it is, know that if it makes you happy and brings you peace, you’ve accomplished your own version of perfection.”
Looking Ahead to Bright Futures
University President Jonathan Green conferred degrees upon 532 graduates in the School of the Arts, School of Humanities, School of Natural and Social Sciences and the Sigmund Weis School of Business.
“At your convocation, little did any of us know that seven months later, we would be thrown into a global pandemic. Just as you had begun to feel like Susquehanna was your home, you were scattered across the country and around the world,” Green said. “And yet this class has created especially strong bonds, and you have persisted to graduation at the highest rates in recent memory.”
Among the Class of 2023, 35 have earned two bachelor’s degrees and one has earned three bachelor’s degrees. One hundred forty-eight graduated with summa cum laude — the Latin honor of highest distinction requiring a cumulative grade point average of 3.8 or above. They have also made their mark around the world. Through Susquehanna’s Global Opportunities study-abroad program, they have traveled to more than 30 countries outside of the United States, from Argentina, Italy and Spain, to Czech Republic, Ghana, Peru and many more. The majority of the graduates hail from Pennsylvania, with New Jersey, Maryland and New York accounting for many of the rest. Others are from Maine, Florida, California and others. They join an alumni community of more than 21,000 worldwide. After graduation they will scatter south to Texas, west to Washington and north to Minnesota, while others will set off to locations abroad in England, Ireland, France, Japan and Spain.
“Every one of you has accomplished things you never thought were possible in August 2019, and you did them while the world was falling apart around you,” Green said. “There are formidable challenges that become more daunting each day as they are fueled by factiousness and self-interest, but I remain hopeful for our future because what we need you have in abundance — resilience and fidelity, compassion and growth, perseverance and grace. As you commence your journey as true citizens of the world, embrace these gifts that have become a hallmark of your class and be the forces for good that you wish to see in the world.”