PISCATAWAY, NJ—For this first time in history, a sitting President of the United States of America will speak at the Rutgers University commencement ceremony, which commemorates the graduation of some 12,000 students at the school’s football stadium.
The distinction is an honor for the 249-year-old university that started in New Brunswick, as the current President typically only speaks at two to four such ceremonies each year, including at least one military academy, according to NJ.com.
President Barack Obama’s surprise announcement comes just three days after one of his Supreme Court Justices spoke at an event organized by the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics.
U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor came to the Rutgers Athletic Center on April 11, and engaged in a warm, intimate, and fascinating conversation.
The Justice was nominated to the Supreme Court by Obama in May 2009, and assumed her role in August of that year after the Senate confirmed her nomination by a vote of 68-31.
Rutgers made national news when student protests against proposed commencement speaker and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice succeeded in pressuring Rice to bow out of giving the speech, which comes with an honorary degree and a $35,000 honorarium.
RUTGERS HAS BEEN COURTING OBAMA FOR YEARS
Obama was first invited to speak at the May 15, 2016 celebration by Rutgers President Robert Barchi more than two years in advance, intending for it to be a part of the school’s 250th anniversary festivities. Soon after, Congressman Frank Pallone and US Senator Bob Menendez joined the chorus calling for a Presidential visit.
Obama has previously visited Middlesex County in 2010 when he visited Tastee Subs in Edison, and in November 2015, he gave a speech at Rutgers-Newark’s Law School.
In February, the school’s television network released a video highlighting the school’s history and its invitation to the US President.
“Mr. President, we invite you to be part of our 250-year-old legacy. Come make history with us,” said the video’s narrator at the conclusion.
On April 6, having not heard back from Obama or the White House, the school’s Board of Governors voted to approve Bill Moyers, an award-winning career journalist who lives in Bernardsville, to speak at the high-profile event.
That decision sparked some pushback from students, many of whom lamented that it would not be Obama giving the speech.
Now, Moyers will instead speak at the School of Arts & Sciences graduation, which takes place shortly after the universitywide ceremony at Rutgers Stadium on the same day, May 15.
“Remember, graduation is made up of two great events: the big celebration at the stadium, where you’ll see your name scroll on the stadium ribbon board and enjoy special videos such as graduate shout-outs to family and friends, photo montages, and more,” reads the Rutgers University website.
“With thousands of guests saluting the culmination of your achievement, it will be a day you will never forget. Don’t miss it.”
Parking permits that normally work on the school’s campus will not be valid on the big day, and instead graduating students are encouraged to register for parking passes between now and April 22. The ceremony with President Obama begins at 12:30pm.
SONIA SOTOMAYOR IS FIRST HISPANIC ON SUPREME COURT
Born in the South Bronx to immigrant parents from Puerto Rico, Sonia Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1976 and received her J.D. from Yale Law School in 1979, where she served as an editor of the Yale Law Journal.
She began her career as Assistant District Attorney in the New York County District Attorney’s office, partner at the New York law firm Pavia & Harcourt, where she litigated international commercial matters, and a judge on both the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, and, later, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
While the Supreme Court is currently embroiled in a political struggle over the stalled nomination of Judge Merrick Garland, Sotomayor steered clear of politics in her April 11 remarks, and focused primarily on her personal history and life philosophy.
Frequently, Sotomayor was asked about the dynamics of being the first Hispanic to sit on the Court, and she spoke at length about her Puerto Rican heritage and identity.
The Justice, who identifies as “an American from New York City” with a “Puerto Rican heart,” said that being immersed in the vibrancy of Puerto Rican culture growing up had granted her a “vital core” with which she conducts her life.
For example, when President Obama called Sotomayor to announce her nomination, he asked of her that she always stay connected to her community.
Her response: “Mr. President, I’ve never known how to do anything else.”