The Georgia Southern University where Luis A. Aguilar gave the commencement address Saturday has students of more diverse origins, he observed, than the Georgia Southern College that awarded him his bachelor’s degree in 1976.
Of course, today’s university, with more than 20,000 students, is also much bigger than the college that gave rise to it was 37 years ago. More than 3,200 degrees were awarded this week, about three-fourths of them in Saturday’s bachelor’s degree ceremony at Paulson Stadium.
In this setting, Aguilar, now one of five commissioners of the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, noted that in 1976 the college had no football team and only about 6,000 students, mostly from the Southeast.
“Today, Georgia Southern is a major university with more than 20,000 students coming from, well, 49 states — we don’t seem to allow North Dakota students here — and over 80 countries. And the Eagles, both in football and other sports, will soon be dominating the Sun Belt Conference,” Aguilar said.
The North Dakota quip drew laughter; the conference comment, cheers.
Aguilar talked about the university’s transformation, the unexpected technological changes 37 years have brought, and his own living of “the American dream.” After arriving in the United States at age 6 as a refugee from Cuba temporarily separated from his parents, he grew up to have a successful law career before being appointed to the SEC by President George W. Bush in 2008. President Barack Obama reappointed him in 2011.
“Remember, you live in a country where anything and everything is possible,” Aguilar said. “I truly believe in the American dream because I have lived it.”
He worked his way through college and law school, he said, with jobs ranging from being a stock boy in a store to loading baggage and cargo onto planes at Miami International Airport.
“Now, it’s a long way from the hot tarmac of the Miami airport to the halls of our nation’s capital, but I carry that experience with me,” Aguilar told the crowd. “I know how hard American families work to pay their bills, to keep a roof over their heads, and if they are lucky, to set aside a little bit every month to save for retirement and for their children’s education.”
With authorization from the University System of Georgia’s Board of Regents, GSU President Dr. Brooks Keel awarded Aguilar an honorary doctorate, the 11th Georgia Southern has bestowed. After his 1976 Bachelor of Arts in political science, Aguilar earned a law degree from the University of Georgia School of Law and a Master of Laws degree from Emory University. But this was his first honorary doctorate.
“It’s quite an honor for it to come from my own university,” he said in an interview afterward.
He also fleshed out details of his immigrant childhood. He was 6 and his brother was 9 when their parents, fearing for their safety under Fidel Castro’s Communist regime in Cuba, sent them to live in the United States in November 1960. They lived first with friends of the family and then aunts and uncles until their parents were able to join them three years later.
A different world
At Georgia Southern in the mid-1970s, there were few Hispanic students.
“I don’t know that they necessarily kept track, but not many,” Aguilar said. “We could all get in a phone booth at the time.”
More literally, he said there were a very few other Cuban students and a few Mexican students. He had an African-American roommate and developed friendships with black students, who were more numerous.
As of last fall, 812 of Georgia Southern’s 20,574 students were reported as “Hispanic (of any race),” according to data from the university’s Office of Strategic Research and Analysis, found online at http://em.georgiasouthern.edu/osra/. That is about 4 percent. Aguilar did not cite this statistic, and no data for 1976 were handy Saturday.
He did indicate that he had seen statistics indicating that Georgia Southern’s student body is now about one-third “minority” and that this is much higher than in the 1970s.
Asked his opinion on immigration reform, Aguilar said he is encouraged by the recent attention the issue is getting in Washington.
“It’s an issue that has been tearing the country apart for decades, and it’s heartening that there appears to be a serious resolve to try to at least come to some satisfactory conclusions,” he said. “It remains to be seen what those will be, but it’s good to see both sides of the aisle having serious discussions.”
A path to citizenship for immigrants not in the country legally is one of the issues that need to be discussed, Aguilar said. But he declined to offer a specific opinion, nothing that it’s not the role of his agency. The SEC regulates capital markets for stocks, bonds and other investments.
Another Cuban-born American, Atlanta Braves Manager Fredi González, received widespread media attention in connection with Saturday’s GSU graduation. González managed the Thursday opening game of a series against the Giants in San Francisco, then traveled to Statesboro to see his daughter, Gabrielle “Gigi” González, graduate with her bachelor’s degree in marketing and public relations. He left the Braves in the hands of bench coach Carlos Tosca for the Friday and Saturday games.
Aguilar said he had never met Fredi González, but would like to.
In his speech, Aguilar counseled students to always choose to do the right thing, to expect the unexpected and to turn challenges into opportunities. In the interview, he said that job prospects appear to be improving, “while still difficult” for this year’s graduates.
Grads’ own views
Chris Walker, 22, from Augusta, appeared to share that assessment. He was interviewed prior to entering the stadium to receive his degree in information technology.
“I mean, it looks promising, but you know, we’ve got to go out there and try to find a job,” Walker said. “The IT market is growing, so if we can find a good foothold for a job somewhere, we’ll probably be set for a while.”
A group of College of Business Administration graduates asked about the state of the economy had yet to hear Aguilar’s remarks. But one of them, economics major Nathan Fetsch, 22, of Kennesaw, seemed to anticipate the part about the unexpected.
“No one knows,” Fetsch said. “We think we know, our professors would like us to say that we know, but nobody knows.”
He has a job interview scheduled in August, but if that prospect doesn’t work out he plans to start graduate school at Georgia State University in January.
Bryan Greto, 22, from Savannah, another economics major, was thinking longer-term.
“The fiscal debt’s probably the greatest danger to our country’s overall health, so it would be awesome if the government could fix that and not sit on their hands,” he said.
Accounting major Lauren Sokolowsky, 21, from Cumming, said the government needs to cut spending “on pointless things.” But as for her immediate prospects, she already has a job lined up with a shipping company in Savannah.
Filling Paulson Stadium’s 16,000 seats and taking up positions on the grassed embankments, the crowd for the ceremony was estimated by university officials at more than 20,000.