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Rutgers' 253rd commencement exercises honors largest-ever graduating class

Approximately 6,500 graduates of the Rutgers Class of 2019 sat in Stadium to hear keynote speakers Jason and Devin McCourty speak about how to "redefine success."  – Photo by Dustin Niles

Rutgers University–New Brunswick held its 253rd commencement exercises at Stadium on Sunday, celebrating the 18,825 graduates from the Class of 2019, the largest ever in the University’s history. 

In his congratulations to the newest group of Rutgers alumni, University President Robert L. Barchi said that every graduate knows how to work hard and that achievement comes from dedication to their goals and commitment to their community. 

“It falls to you to become fully engaged members of our civil society,” Barchi said. “Now it is time to accept your own responsibility in the very issues you have been debating, to become the agents for the change that you seek.” 

Following his remarks, Barchi introduced who would be earning honorary degrees during the ceremony, the first being Gov. Phil Murphy (D-N.J.), who received an honorary Doctor of Laws, as every newly elected New Jersey governor does, Barchi said. 

All he had to do was show up on time to earn his degree, Murphy joked. He, too, went on to congratulate the graduates. 

“I am deeply humbled to earn this honorary degree,” he said. “I am even more deeply humbled, in this way, to be a part of this diverse, distinguished and talented class that is graduating today.”

Afterward, Barchi returned to the podium to introduce the recipients of the Doctor of Humane Letters and the keynote speakers, Rutgers alumni, philanthropists and Super Bowl LIII champions Devin and Jason McCourty. 

But before that, Barchi honored Paul Robeson’s centennial by giving Susan Robeson a replica of the Doctor of Humane Letters given to her grandfather, an actor, singer, scholar and Rutgers alumnus. The honorary degree was originally given to Paul Robeson’s son Paul Robeson, Jr., in 1973 for his father’s 75th anniversary of graduating as valedictorian of the Class of 1919. 

“Paul Robeson left an indelible mark on the history of this University, and on the history of our nation,” Barchi said. 

After first reminiscing on student experiences such as MidKnight Breakfast and RU Screw, Jason and Devin McCourty spoke about coming to Rutgers to play football for Coach Greg Schiano in 2005. 

Even though they are twins, their paths to get to Rutgers took different turns, Jason McCourty said. 

Rutgers did not want Devin McCourty at first, he said. But they wanted Jason, offering him a full scholarship. 

“But that offer did not come with a 2-for-1 special,” Devin McCourty said. “No 'buy one, get one free' coupon, so I sat there wondering, ‘Why doesn’t Rutgers want me? Am I not as good as I thought? Aren’t we the same?’” 

Yet after being invited to visit with his brother one weekend, Devin McCourty was offered a full scholarship as well, he said. On his mother’s advice, he got over the initial resentment of earning his scholarship through his brother and decided that he had the opportunity to show people what he was made of. 

At the time, people had told them to focus on education, and make a plan B, Devin McCourty said. This was because the people who loved them most did not want to see them fail. 

“The power of positive thinking can change your life,” Devin McCourty said. “I know chasing goals can be scary, you might be doing things for the first time in your family’s history, you may be following in the footsteps of someone great. But do you think we’d be celebrating the 100th anniversary of Paul Robeson’s graduation if he had fear and doubt step in the way of being great?” 

It was the inspiration of Paul Robeson and people like him that gave the brothers the courage to use their platform provided by the NFL to highlight their aunt’s battle with sickle cell disease, Devin McCourty said. 

The two decided to start a campaign called Tackle Sickle Cell, which, since 2013, has raised more than $1 million for sickle cell research and assistance to families, Devin McCourty said. 

They have also become active members of players’ coalition, which fights injustices all throughout America, Devin McCourty said. 

“We thought playing in the Super Bowl was nerve-racking, until we went to the Massachusetts State House and decided we would testify to advocate for an educational bill,” Devin McCourty said. 

Reflecting on his transition to the NFL as a professional athlete, Jason McCourty said that he had to redefine his success from making the team to becoming a starter and then, after playing year in and year out, he had a desire to try to win. 

The thief of his own joy was to compare, Jason McCourty said. As identical twins in similar professions, people are always going to want to know who is faster, stronger or better. But every person, he said, must examine their own actions to become a part of their own accomplishments. 

“As I look out into the crowd of the graduating class of 2019,” Jason McCourty said. “There is a story behind each and every one of you, one no more important than the next. Each of you have gone through obstacles and circumstances to get here, but you all got here … never let the journey of the next person define your successes or your failures. Redefine success every step of the way, put your head down and do your work.” 

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