Drexel University’s Unforgettable 2024 Commencement Ceremony

Graduating Dragons braved the weather for a communal event in Citizens Bank Park. A class whose members might have lost out on high school ceremonies due to the COVID-19 pandemic was treated to a night full of inspirational speeches and colorful fireworks.
Drexel President John Fry and Sheryl Lee Ralph on stage at Drexel's 2024 Commencement.

Drexel University President John Fry and Sheryl Lee Ralph at Drexel's 2024 Commencement ceremony. All photos in this story are credited to Kelly & Massa Photography. 

For graduates who started their Drexel University experience on Zoom at home and/or came to campus following social distancing precautions, the journey from COVID masks to Commencement caps marks a particularly monumental time of their lives.

Even the weather at Drexel’s June 14 University-wide Commencement ceremony started off with darkened clouds, rain and immense gusts of wind that blew up hoods and menaced microphones of the speakers — but the ceremony ended with some blue skies and bright, colorful fireworks. After everything else they experienced in the past few years, less-than-ideal weather wasn’t going to bring the Dragons down (though having umbrellas, rain ponchos and some cover provided by those mortar boards helped).

“No matter where you go, no matter what you do, there will be challenges like wind and rain on you as you present your speech,” said Drexel’s 2024 University-wide Commencement speaker Sheryl Lee Ralph, which brought applause and laughs from Dragons in the stands of Citizens Bank Park. “But you got to meet them knowing that challenges are just steppingstones. I know it's hard to imagine anything worse than what you have already been through, but in the vernacular, ‘life be lifing.’”

After a college experience unlike any other, those graduating Dragons celebrated everything they’ve accomplished at the University, marking an end of their time as students and the start of their lives with a new college degree better equipped to serve the public good. In addition to the University-wide ceremony held Friday, Drexel colleges and schools held individual ceremonies June 13–15.

A wide view shot of Vivek Babu speaking at the podium at Drexel University's 2024 Commencement ceremony.

Vivek Babu on stage while addressing the Class of 2024 at Drexel's Commencement. 

“Graduates, I marvel not just at what you have accomplished during your time at Drexel, but also at the way you have overcome so much disruption and so many barriers along the way….Yet here you are today -— humane, compassionate citizens and talented professionals, artists, scholars, healers, helpers and leaders — ready to do your part to repair our democracy and our world,” said Drexel University President John Fry.

At the graduation event, a mix of Drexel speakers and external friends of the University addressed the graduates with advice, hopes, shared experiences and acknowledgements of the tumultuous times under which the students completed their degrees.

Vivek Babu, who graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences as a biological sciences major in the BS+MD Early Assurance Program and served as president of the Undergraduate Student Government Association, spoke on behalf of the undergraduate Class of 2024 as gusts of wind caused him to remove his hood, take off his cap, switch to a handheld microphone at the podium and point out that Dragons are crossing the finish line “with diploma in hand, in rain, sun and in wind.” He spoke of the importance of creating community, thanking his “first community” of his family, and asked graduates to scream their names to create a memory for whenever they “find [themselves] forgetting these last few years of community.”  

“Cut through the noise. Embrace yourself as part of a community far greater than just your individual accomplishments and failures. You are moving along this path hand-in-hand with friends, family, mentors and even your younger self. You stand on the shoulders of giants before you and believe me, that is why I am standing this proudly today,” said Babu. 

Cimi Patani speaking at the podium at Drexel University's 2024 Commencement ceremony.

Cimi Patani spoke on stage at Drexel's 2024 Commencement ceremony.

Cimi Patani, who graduated from the College of Engineering with a MS in electrical engineering and formerly served as president of the Graduate Student Association, addressed the crowd on behalf of the graduate Class of 2024. She credited peace and peace of mind as making her world a better place, and described the three pillars of peace — kindness, respect and gratitude — that have helped orient her in life … including in that very moment on stage with some technical and wind-related difficulties.

“As emotional beings living in a complex world, we experience strong emotions like anger of all the things happening around us. These emotions are like nuclear power. They have the immense potential to illuminate our life and the lives around us or lead to the less desirable outcome, which we definitely do not want. For that, peace should start at heart. So #ForeverDragons, I wish you peace, not just today, but as you move forward and contribute to shaping a world that values mental health and global harmony,” said Patani.

Already, these graduates “have consistently lived the values of hard work, resourcefulness, resilience, and grit,” said Fry, which will help them “meet hard challenges and [work] together to make life better for themselves and others.”

Sheryl Lee Ralph during her keynote address at Drexel's 2024 Commencement.

Sheryl Lee Ralph during her keynote address at Drexel's 2024 Commencement.

“As builders of trust and exemplars of mutual respect, you stand to play a powerful role in restoring our society’s civic health and safeguarding its future. Use the experience and skills you have acquired at Drexel to rebuild trust, rejuvenate our public discourse and help our country regain its civic health for the betterment of all its citizens. We are counting on you to heal the fissures in our democracy, to drive innovation and to harness advances in technology toward solving existing problems — without creating new ones,” he said.  

Ralph — an award-winning actress, producer and humanitarian and star of the acclaimed television show set in Philadelphia, “Abbott Elementary” — also shared her hopes for the Class of 2024 to commit to making the world a better place and leave behind and learn from the challenges they’ve already crossed as they “stand at the precipice of [their] own future personal possibilities.

She shared personal and professional experiences that shaped her dreams and career, and told Dragons, “As you, the Class of 2024, embark on life after college, let me say this yet again: People don’t have to like you, people don’t have to love you, but when you look in the mirror, you better love what you see!

Ralph is now the second family member with a Drexel degree; as she noted in an Instagram post after Commencement, the self-described “proud Drexel Dragon mom” had previously been a part of Drexel’s graduation ceremonies when her son Etienne Maurice graduated from Drexel in 2015 with a bachelor of science in film and video. Nine years later, Ralph received a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, from Drexel.

Pennsylvania State Sen. Vincent J. Hughes with arms raised while speaking at the podium at Drexel's 2024 Commencement.
Pennsylvania State Sen. Vincent J. Hughes cheered on Dragons at Drexel's 2024 Commencement ceremony.

And this 2024 Drexel Commencement also had family ties: Her husband, Pennsylvania State Sen. Vincent J. Hughes, revved the crowd up and addressed the graduates as one of the first speakers at the event.

“Thank you for bringing … West Philadelphia down to South Philadelphia in a complete South Philly takeover. Forever Dragons! Forever Winners! Forever difference makers! Welcome to the family that's going to change the world,” said Hughes.

The other honorary degree recipient recognized at the ceremony was Joseph R. Syrnick, BS ’69, MS ’71, who captained Drexel’s 1968 baseball team. He continued his leadership after graduation through three decades of public service with the City of Philadelphia and two decades with the nonprofit Schuylkill River Development Corporation, where he currently is president and chief executive officer and oversees work to redevelop and restore the Schuylkill River, which is within walking distance of Drexel’s University City Campus.

The Schuylkill River is also where the city’s famous Boathouse Row became lit up in blue and gold on the night of July 14 in honor of Drexel’s Commencement ceremony and Class of 2024. 

Students in Commencement regalia, some with ponchos and umbrellas, in the stands of Citizens Bank Park for Drexel's 2024 Commencement.

Graduating students braved the rain at Citizens Bank Park.

That night, Drexel’s Philadelphia connections also extended to South Philly that night with its continued tradition of hosting a University-wide graduation event at Citizens Bank Park, home of the Philadelphia Phillies. At the time of the ceremony, the Major League Baseball team led the National League East with the best record in baseball. As is tradition, the ceremony ended with a song and video of “High Hopes,” the Phillies rallying cry sung by beloved Hall of Fame sportscaster Harry Kalas. Dan Baker, the voice of baseball in Philly and another Drexel Dragon parent who traditionally hosts Drexel commencement ceremonies in the stadium, also emceed this year’s event.