WILKES-BARRE — Dressed in vibrant Gaelic attire, a burly drum major towered over the rest of the Wilkes University commencement procession marching through downtown Wilkes-Barre.
He and the rest of the Wyoming Valley Pipe and Drum Band led the graduation march onto campus Saturday as part of the ceremony’s return there after six years of off-campus commencements held at the arena in Wilkes-Barre Township.
This graduation was Wilkes President Patrick Leahy’s first spring commencement as the university’s leader. He inherited the years-long initiative to bring it back to campus and was glad graduates could seal their education where it began, he said.
In his welcoming remarks, Leahy used the word “ritual” to describe the proceedings. Undoubtedly, old-school traditions on home turf sweetened the day for many veteran Wilkes educators.
“Today we return to a centuries-old ritual,” said Leahy, “… to celebrate a new beginning, not an old ending.”
It was unclear from where the bagpiper tradition comes. But arena-housed ceremonies did not accommodate the marching musicians, said Paul Adams, the school’s vice president of student affairs. He said when graduates marched through the campus years ago, bagpipers always led the procession.
Leahy said by holding the university’s graduate and undergraduate ceremonies at separate times Saturday, they were able to fit all graduates and their cheering supporters in the Arnaud C. Marts Sports & Conference Center on South Franklin Street.
Doctor of Pharmacy graduate Kim Polovitch of Clarks Summit said the split ceremony was better for everyone because Saturday’s 746 total graduates did not have to take their victory strut across the stage in the same ceremony, shortening proceedings.
Polovitch already has a job lined up with a Rite Aid Pharmacy in the Lehigh Valley, she said. “I just feel fortunate,” Polovitch said about her degree. “We’re lucky to have a major that has a lot of job opportunities. That’s not the case for some people.”
Later in the day, as the undergraduate class entered the gymnasium to a visibly more rambunctious crowd than their morning co-celebrators, the school’s last three Pharmaceutical Science students, Andrew Trout, Jessica Khalil and Krista Zawistowski, walked together at the procession’s end.
They said because of shrinking participation in their program of choice, the school has removed it from the course offerings; however, the three were able to finish their studies. The friends laughed about things that probably once frustrated them, such as back-to-back advanced classes and the institution’s phasing out of a program in which they were invested.
They also remembered an internship they shared at a pharmaceutical company. “We lived together for two months. We got to be family,” said Khalil, a New Jersey native.
In his commencement speech, 1972 Wilkes grad Ron Rittenmeyer — one-time CEO of Electronic Data Systems, a technology company that eventually merged with Hewlett-Packard — reminded the graduates that their education means nothing if it is not used to guide others.
“Knowledge that is used to inspire the intellectual advancement of others is much better than just giving the answer,” Rittenmeyer said.