Southern graduation, Spring 2014

With a catch in her voice, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu retold the individual stories of a handful of families who struggled to overcome obstacles and help their students join the 589 who graduated Friday at Southern University.

Landrieu singled out the great aunt of Lloyd P. Lewis, who took him in after losing his mother as a youngster.

Now many years later and after working several jobs to come up with the money, Lewis was graduating with a Bachelor of Science in nursing, she said. The aunt waved from the stands; Lewis was given a standing ovation by fellow students in the College of Nursing and Allied Health.

“I wish our country would understand more deeply and more compassionately that a lot of kids sitting here,” Landrieu said, “are carrying a lot of challenges and if we would just help a little bit more, Lloyd’s story would be repeated more throughout our country.”

Landrieu, who faces a tough re-election battle in November, also praised Southern’s leadership for helping the university to regain financial and academic footing after years of state budget cuts and declining enrollment put the school’s long-term viability in doubt.

Southern declared a financial emergency in October 2011, which allowed the university to lay off faculty and restructure academic programs. Those enrollment declines, coupled with six straight years of state budget cuts, have led to shaky finances, program closings and staff layoffs.

Landrieu, a Democrat, said Southern’s leaders helped “keep the doors of the university open.” But the day was about overcoming struggles to celebrate graduation from college.

Despite warnings of moderator Robert René to maintain decorum and to turn off cellphones, the stands erupted in shouts of congratulations and flashes of smartphone photographs when graduates marched into the F.G. Clark Activity Center.

The financial drama was all in the past, said a smiling Ernest Johnson, who came to Southern four years ago on the advice of a teacher in his Los Angeles high school and graduated Friday with a Bachelor of Science degree.

Nevertheless, throughout his studies, the financial situation was always in the background, he said. But there wasn’t much he could do about it, so Johnson said he worked harder. “You never knew if it was going to close,” said Johnson, who plans to enlist in the U.S. Air Force.

Neal and Marcia Arp drove down from Yazoo City, Mississippi, to watch their youngest graduate with honors.

Both parents graduated from Southern University. “We believe in the traditions of historic black colleges and universities,” Marcia Arp said, adding that her other two children also graduated from HBCUs and now have successful careers in other states.

The Arps said they watched with worry as the debate over financing swirled around the Southern campus.

They had to pay more in tuition and costs. Their daughter’s department was consolidated about halfway through her studies. “But she never was worried,” Marcia Arp said. So, they decided not to show concern and are happy now that they didn’t step in. Their 22-year-old daughter, Barbara, graduated with honors.

Neal Arp stood through most of the ceremony smiling and filming. After a graduation lunch at Drusilla’s, Barbara will prepare to move to Alabama, where she will study for her master’s degree in family counseling.

Landrieu recalled spending Thursday with her 84-year-old father, former New Orleans Mayor Moon Landrieu. She started thinking about the world back then.

“How much better, more hopeful, more happy, more prosperous, it looks today in large measure because of the dreams, the passions, the convictions of building a better world that has been built at institutions like Southern,” Landrieu said. “I wish that more leaders in our state understood this.”