Sheryl Lee Ralph, an Emmy Award-winning actress, Broadway star, TV sitcom star, and one of the first women admitted to Rutgers College more than 50 years ago, encouraged members of the Class of 2023 to chase their dreams and find their voice in a passionate speech that started with her singing and taking a selfie with the crowd.
“Don’t chase money. Money will come,” said Ralph who made history in 2022 when she won the Emmy for Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series for her role as kindergarten teacher Barbara Howard in ABC’s hit sitcom Abbott Elementary. “Figure out what makes you happy. If you enjoy what you do, it doesn’t feel like a job.”
Before Ralph, only the second Black woman to win that Emmy, delivered the commencement address, President Jonathan Holloway bestowed upon her an honorary degree of humane letters during the 257th Anniversary Commencement of Rutgers University-New Brunswick and Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences (RBHS).
Honorary degrees were also given to Mark Angelson, chair of the Institute of International Education, a member of the U.S. President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, former chair and current vice chair of the Rutgers University Board of Governors, and Katalin Karikó, award-winning neurosurgery professor and former senior vice president of BioNTech.
For members of the graduating class, Sunday’s commencement at SHI Stadium in Piscataway marked the culmination of four years of great change shaped by the pandemic shutdown and return to school.
“I think it was a nontraditional experience for college. All of a sudden, we went from freshmen to upper classmen, so it does feel like a bit of an interruption, but it was part of the story,” said Nandita Vasantha from Princeton, who is graduating from the School of Arts and Sciences and Rutgers Business School-Newark and New Brunswick.
“I have definitely grown as a person,” Vasantha said. “It is crazy to think I was here when I was 18. It is really nice to be able to wrap it all up here at the stadium. I am so grateful for the experiences I had here on the banks.”
Looking out at the sea of students in their red and black regalia, Ralph – who at 19 was the youngest woman to graduate from Rutgers College at the time – told the graduating class that her late mother is loving this moment because she had skipped her own commencement in 1975 and was now on stage in a cap and gown getting a degree.
“Much to my mother’s disappointment, there are no pictures of me accepting that well-earned degree because, guess what, I was cast in a Skippy peanut butter commercial, and it was shooting the same day. I made the right decision. Look at me now,” she said jokingly. “But seriously, what a blessing. I got to do the commercial, and today I get to take a picture in the cap and gown.”
Speaking to the graduates and thousands in attendance, Ralph told them Rutgers is where her dreams started to take shape. While she entered as a premed student at the age of 16, she said she quickly realized neither medicine nor law would be her future.
“I found my passion on the stage of the Little Theater on the Douglass College campus,” she said.