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Feeding America CEO encourages graduates to 'keep climbing' amid challenges

On Friday, May 13, two chief student marshals ushered in more than 550 graduates into the F.G. Clark Activity Center during the Spring 2022 Commencement Ceremonies. Candace Chatman and Rason Irvin, both graduates of the College of Sciences and Engineering, received the respective honors of being chief student marshals by earning a cumulative 4.0 GPA. Both students will be relocating to the East Coast post-graduation to put their Bachelor of Science degrees in computer science to great use at Microsoft and Adobe, respectively.

“Usually, I set outlandish goals that I don’t genuinely think I’ll obtain, but serve as markers to strive toward,” said Irvin, a native of Houston. “I feel proud, honored, and humbled to the greatest degree, and most importantly thankful for every single person that assisted me in obtaining this accolade of chief student marshal.”

Chatman, a native of Baton Rouge, shared similar sentiments.

“This achievement culminates all my years of sacrifice, in the pursuit of academic excellence since grade school,” she said. “I do attribute my desire to always want to be better and do better, thanks to my parents; they never forced me to be this way but instead encouraged me to go for things I was interested in."

Chatman and fellow degree candidates were further encouraged by  Louisiana native Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, chief executive officer of Feeding America. She oversees the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization and second-largest U.S. charity, according to Forbes. Babineaux-Fontenot was named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People of 2020.

During her introduction, Southern University President-Chancellor Ray L. Belton welcomed her as  “a daughter of Southern University.”

Babineaux-Fontenot shared in her raw and personal speech that the graduates should prepare for the journey ahead and that although they’ve gone through so much already, they should keep climbing towards their goals. She referenced, “Mother to Son,” the acclaimed poem by Langston Hughes.

“The mother is speaking to her son to prepare him for the journey ahead in his life,” Babineaux-Fontenot said. “She uses a staircase to symbolize life. She explains that her life has had splinters, holes, and places and times where there was no carpet. She goes on to tell him that this may happen to him, too, but she pleads with her son to not fall down those stairs and if he does fall, don’t sit there and to keep climbing.”

Babineaux-Fontenot, an alumna of the Southern University Law Center, acknowledged the weights that these young adults have carried throughout their academic careers and stated that she is hopeful for the future because of them.

 “As a class, you have been through so much,” she said. “You graduate in the middle of a global pandemic along with the other issues on top of it. I want you to know that I am so hopeful because of you. Your generation is making way for differences and not acting like you don't see it. Your generation is celebrating differences. I am learning to celebrate the ways I am different. A large part of your example makes me hopeful.

“I come to you with a grateful and hopeful heart. I don’t come to lecture you but I come to celebrate you and I do know what struggle is and yet here I am in front of you living my best life as CEO of an organization that has already provided over 11 billion meals to people who need it the most. I hope you remember your life is likely to continue to struggle but you’re tough. You got this. Just remember this one thing: you keep climbing.”

Other highlights of the ceremony included:

Civil rights legend Jerome H. Smith was awarded the Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. In 1961, Smith took part in two Freedom Rides intent on desegregating local bus stations — the first from Montgomery, Alabama to Jackson, Mississippi, on May 24, and the second from New Orleans to McComb, Mississippi, on November 29.

Belton, who presided over his last commencement before retirement, awarded posthumous degrees to Southern University students JoVonté Barber, who was killed in March, and Derrick Warren II, who died in September 2021.

Two cadets were commissioned as officers in the U.S. Armed Forces:

Second Lieutenant Faith Placide

Louisiana Army National Guard

Quartermaster Corps 


Second Lieutenant Caleb Washington

Louisiana National Guard

Ordnance Corps


For the recap of the 2022 Spring Commencement, including photos and video, click here.