Commencement honorees encourage graduates to champion ‘a world of fairness and compassion’

Author: Strategic Marketing and Communications
May 24, 2024
SF State graduate walking through Oracle Park
Photo Credit: Kevin Perez

Civil rights attorney Walter Riley, actor and activist Benjamin Bratt and DePauw University President Lori S. White all emphasized service and leadership at the May 24 ceremony

San Francisco State University celebrated the Class of 2024 at its 123rd Commencement ceremony Friday, May 24, at Oracle Park. More than 4,000 graduates attended the event along with thousands of family and friends.

In addition to celebrating new graduates, San Francisco State and the California State University (CSU) conferred honorary degrees on three individuals who’ve distinguished themselves with their service to others: actor and activist Benjamin Bratt, attorney and civil rights activist Walter Riley and the late psychologist, activist and educator Joseph L. White (A.B., ’54; M.S., ’58). White’s degree was accepted by his daughter Lori S. White, president of Indiana’s DePauw University. All three acceptance speeches emphasized the importance of activism and encouraged the Class of 2024 to make a difference in the world.

“I accept this recognition of my life’s work in civil rights, against racism, against police brutality, against exploitation of our environment and people for the benefit of the economic and political elite,” said Riley, who received the honorary degree Doctor of Laws. “I acknowledge all those whose work make this campus a place for truth and justice. Through our collective efforts we can move closer to a world where ideals become realities.”

Riley attended SF State in the 1960s and participated in the 1968 student strike that led to the creation of the University’s College of Ethnic Studies. Later he was active in the labor and anti-war movements, and after earning a law degree from Golden Gate University he took his fight for social justice into the courts.

“Every generation needs a purpose,” he told this year’s graduates. “May that purpose be just, creating a world of fairness and compassion.”

In his acceptance speech, Bratt recalled the struggles of growing up poor in San Francisco, one of five children being raised by a single mother who’d emigrated from Peru.

“School proved to be the refuge that I needed,” said Bratt, an award-winning actor and producer best known for roles in “Law & Order,” “Modern Family” and “Traffic.” “I loved school, and it was there that I discovered I was an eager and enthusiastic learner and seeker. More to the point, it was there that I discovered my own creativity and the power of the arts.”

Bratt, who received the honorary degree Doctor of Fine Arts, challenged his audience to use their educations to make a difference.

“If you are receiving your degree it’s because you’ve discovered your own voice and have enjoyed the privilege of someone else’s belief in you, perhaps your teachers, your own family, your community,” said Bratt, a longtime supporter of the American Indian College Fund, Amazon Watch, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Mission Cultural Center and other nonprofits. “The question is: What will you do with that privilege and the power of a prestigious university education? I’ll let you in on a little secret: We’re counting on you to do something spectacular even as you figure it out, because you are the inspiration of our hope.”

White talked about her father’s pioneering work as an educator and psychologist. A two-time graduate of SF State, earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the University, he became known as “the godfather of Black psychology.”

Benjamin Bratt speaking during SF State's 2024 Commencement

Doctor of Fine Arts recipient Benjamin Bratt.

He returned to SF State in 1968 as a professor of Psychology and later dean of Undergraduate Studies, helping to launch what is now known as the Department of Africana Studies.

“Graduates, I hope you are inspired by my dad’s story and his lifetime and legacy of service to others, of which many of you are direct recipients,” said White of her father, who was granted the honorary degree Doctor of Letters. White added that she hoped graduates would see her father in themselves and, like him, accept that “those who have been so richly blessed have a responsibility to give back to others in meaningful ways.”

Other Commencement speakers included SF State President Lynn Mahoney, Associated Students President Ersa, graduate speaker Genesis Sorrick and undergraduate speaker Eddison Jintalan Contreras. The ceremony will be made available to view in its entirety on SF State’s YouTube channel.

Learn more about the University’s 2024 Commencement.