New graduates celebrate by throwing confetti and caps at the completion of the commencement ceremony.

The Commencement of the class of 2024

May 19, 2024

The University of Notre Dame welcomed 26,620 graduates, family, friends and faculty to Notre Dame Stadium on Sunday (May 19) to celebrate its 179th Commencement Ceremony.

President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., presided over the ceremony for the last time as president, before stepping down at the end of the month after 19 years in the role to return to teaching and ministry at Notre Dame.

Serving in dual roles, Father Jenkins also delivered the commencement address for the ceremony, which was followed by a performance from Irish folk band The High Kings.

A total of 3,343 degrees were conferred over the weekend, including 2,275 degrees to undergraduate students during Sunday’s ceremony.

Honorary degrees were conferred on Jack Brennan, the chair emeritus of Vanguard, a Fellow of the University and chair of the University’s Board of Trustees; medicinal chemist Sabine Hadida, senior vice president and San Diego site head at Vertex Pharmaceuticals; Cardinal Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States; and sculptor Jaume Plensa.

Father Jenkins also received an honorary degree during the ceremony.

In an invocation to fellow graduates, salutatorian Shaker Erbini reflected on moments of mercy, support and even loss — which left an indelible mark on a class that began their college careers in the first year of a global pandemic and are ending it amid global conflict.

“Oh God, we ask you to let us be voices for the voiceless,” Erbini said. “May you guide us to use the privilege and influence we have as members of the Notre Dame family to bring peace and justice to all who are suffering and oppressed in the world. Let us be forces for good.”

That sentiment was echoed by valedictorian Isabela Tasende, who recalled her first flight bound for South Bend, Indiana, and Notre Dame’s campus after “nine long months in lockdown.” Calling herself a “Panamanian theater kid,” Tasende said that as she adapted to her new life on campus, she “quickly realized the most pivotal lessons Notre Dame had to offer revolved not just around academics, but on finding the courage to have hope amid hardship.”

“Hope is not passive,” she said. “Hope is not naïve. And most surprisingly, hope comes not just from our successes against injustice, but from the love we share and the communities we build along the way.”

Tasende emphasized the support felt from within the University, through faculty, facilities and labs and from families, friends, mentors and peers, and credited her parents, “hard-working immigrants” with an understanding of what it means to “have gratitude motivate discipline.”

“Just so, the privilege of a Notre Dame education calls us out of complacency and into responsibility to do what we can with what we have been given, and to give back to those who have made our journeys possible.”

Father John I. Jenkins stands at a podium looking out on the class of 2024.
University of Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C. gives the Commencement address at the 2024 Commencement Ceremony in Notre Dame Stadium. (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

Father Jenkins delivered an emotional, personal and poignant commencement address. Opening with a little humor, he noted graduates likely would have preferred to hear from a number of guest speakers from the pope to Taylor Swift, but "you got me.”

“It is true, I don’t have the star power of others on the list above,” he said. “But I have a few things they do not have.”

Speaking of his shared experience as a student at Notre Dame, graduating in 1976, Father Jenkins shared several personal photos including his yearbook photo, a photo of his dorm room and a photo taken with friends at Knute Rockne’s grave, which was located in South Bend’s Highland Cemetery at the time.

Asking that each graduate give their parents a round of applause for their love and support, Father Jenkins told of the lessons he learned from watching his own parents and how he’s carried those lessons with him throughout his life.

His father was a gastroenterologist who took the time to sit with his patients and ask about their families, their children and their worries in addition to routine medical questions.

“I have had the chance to observe and learn from many highly accomplished leaders, but watching my dad talk to his patients not just about their medical ailments, but about their lives, taught me the most about the power of treating every individual as a person worthy of respect.”

From his mother, a “rare combination of kindness and strength” who raised 12 children, he learned the building blocks of community.

“She was not a strict, tightly organized manager of the household,” he said. “But she laid down two inviolable rules: first, do your part for the common good, second take care of your siblings — particularly those younger than you. No one has taught me more about how to build and sustain a community.”

Speaking to a class “like no other,” one of the first to return to a “socially distanced, masked, Purell-drenched and somewhat tense campus,” Father Jenkins echoed comments made by Tasende in her address about the loss of Valeria Espinel and Olivia Laura Rojas, two students who were killed in a car accident in October 2020.

“The COVID disruption, isolation and hardships were difficult, but nothing wounded our hearts more than losing these two young women,” Father Jenkins said. “They now rest in God’s arms, but they are still members of the class of 2024.” Degrees were awarded to both students’ families over the weekend.

Recognizing the challenges faced by the class of 2024 over the course of their time on campus, he also acknowledged the realities of the tumultuous world they would enter when they leave campus.

“There are wars that kill thousands of innocents; the intrinsic dignity of human life is disregarded; climate change continues apace as the earth, our common home, is damaged; we see around the world great inequities and grinding poverty; authoritarian regimes have emerged and democratic institutions struggle; there are bigotries of various kinds and systematic injustices,” Father Jenkins said.

He noted that while rhetoric and a “hatred for the opposition” may be an effective strategy when it comes to winning elections and encouraging political mobilization, it “leaves us unable to talk to one another, solve problems through compromise and pursue the common good together.”

“My message today is very simple: don’t succumb,” Father Jenkins said. “Don’t be seduced by hatred. Rather show the world that your commitment to your convictions does not require that you show contempt for those who do not share them. I encourage you to express your convictions, join with those who agree, and work diligently for what you believe. But I urge you also to be suspicious of rhetoric that casts those who disagree as evil. I urge that you do not dismiss dissenters. I urge that you engage not only the like-minded, but also those with a different view. And I hope you enter into those conversations with an openness to learn as well as teach, to understand the other person as well as correct their errors. In short, treat your dialogical opponent with respect, and thereby show them love."

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, chief executive officer of Feeding America, at the 2024 Commencement Ceremony in Notre Dame Stadium. She is wearing blue robes and glasses.
Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, chief executive officer of Feeding America, at the 2024 Commencement Ceremony in Notre Dame Stadium. (Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame)

Claire Babineaux-Fontenot, chief executive officer of Feeding America and recipient of the 2024 Laetare Medal, remarked on a serendipitous connection to Sister Thea Bowman. A member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, Sister Bowman was the granddaughter of a slave and the first African American to be awarded the Laetare Medal — the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics.

Babineaux-Fontenot had been visiting an ailing family member and had been praying for “a better understanding of my assignment here,” when she drove by a church she’d attended when previously in the area that was named for Sister Bowman.

“As I began to learn about Mary Thea Bowman, there were profound ways that our life stories converged and very clear divergences as well,” she said. “And within my quest to know more about her life, I came to better understand my role today.”

Both Babineaux-Fontenot and Sister Bowman felt a strong calling toward their future at a young age.

“Around the same age that I, as a young girl, declared to my father that I would become a lawyer when I grew up, she declared to hers that she would become a Catholic,” Babineaux-Fontenot said.

“Sister Thea, as she was affectionately known, proceeded to live a life filled with service,” she added. “As she opened her whole self to others, including her identity as a Black, Catholic woman, she unlocked and embraced the fullness of those around her. She was, at her core, a bridge builder across human-made divides.”

Sister Bowman was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early 50s and died at 52 years old, just seven weeks before she was due to accept the Laetare Medal. The honor was awarded posthumously.

Babineaux-Fontenot was also diagnosed with breast cancer as she entered her 50s.

Cancer allowed her to “pivot,” she said, and led her to her current role as chief executive officer of Feeding America, a national network of more than 200 food banks and 60,000 charitable and faith-based partners with a mission to rescue, store and distribute food to more than 49 million people each year.

“My cancer woke me and led me to Feeding America where I’ve been blessed to be of service and to serve alongside extraordinary people,” Babineaux-Fontenot said. “People who, even in the face of a global health pandemic with significant risk to their own health, chose to provide meals to nearly 60 million people in 2020 alone. And, boy did they provide: 6.7 billion meals. And, my work at Feeding America has led me here.

“I am here,” she said, and called on graduates to consider, “What will it mean to the world that you are here too? What will we together choose to be in the world?”

Babineaux-Fontenot closed with words from Sister Bowman herself.

“I think she knew that at moments like this, we set superhuman expectations for ourselves. She knew, in ways I still struggle, that perfection is neither attainable nor, apparently, required,” Babineaux-Fontenot said. “In her words: ‘I think the difference between me and some people is that I’m content to do my little bit. Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make change. But if each one would light a candle, we’d have a tremendous light.’”

At the conclusion of the ceremony, Father Jenkins gave his last charge to the class of 2024 marking the end of a historical tenure as president of the University of Notre Dame — and the start of a new chapter.

Read transcripts of Father Jenkins’ speech and others delivered during the ceremony.