Love, compassion, and the spirit of Brooklyn filled Barclays Center at Brooklyn College’s commencement on May 24 as the extraordinary accomplishments of the Class of 2024 were celebrated by the institution’s extended family.

Among the special guests were award-winning filmmaker, philanthropist, and activist Abigail E. Disney, who was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters and served as the keynote speaker; Brooklyn College Foundation Trustee Carol L. Zicklin ’61, who was bestowed the Presidential Medal of Honor; and valedictorian for the class, Rhema Mills.

President Michelle J. Anderson congratulates the Class of 2024.

College President Michelle J. Anderson, Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs April Bedford, and Vice President for Student Affairs Ron Jackson helped lead the conferring of degrees with the deans from the college’s School of Natural and Behavioral Sciences; School of Visual, Media and Performing Arts; Murray Koppelman School of Business; School of Education; and School of Humanities and Social Sciences as well as the CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies. The college conferred 2,695 baccalaureate degrees, 1,046 master’s degrees, and 60 advanced certificates.

Congratulating the Class of 2024, President Anderson pointed to the people who helped get the graduates to this point in their lives, including family, friends, and the Brooklyn College faculty.

“We could not be prouder of you and what you have accomplished to get to this point in your academic careers,” President Anderson told the Class of 2024. “You have worked so hard and should be proud of the extraordinary milestone you have achieved. It is you who deserve the real praise and credit. You made the important decision to attend college; you embraced critical, scientific, and analytical thinking; you did the hard work, day by day and, in so doing, expanded what is possible in your lives.”

During her keynote speech, Disney pointed to the power of love over hate as she stressed the importance of recognizing the nuances in today’s complicated political and social climate. Congratulating the Class of 2024, she urged the graduates to lean on compassion and empathy to co-exist and thrive.

President Michelle J. Anderson awards Abigail E. Disney (left) an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.

Disney’s 2008 film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, was screened worldwide and chronicled the women’s peace movement in Liberia that helped bring an end to the bloody civil war that ravaged the country for years. One of the protagonists of the film was Leymah Gbowee, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her nonviolent efforts during that struggle. Today, Gbowee serves as the executive director of the Institute on Gender, Law, and Transformative Peace, which is a partnership between Brooklyn College and CUNY School of Law.

“If you can find a way to be more empathic than bitter, if you can find a way to have more questions than answers, more humility than certainty, more love than fear, you won’t magically suddenly agree about everything, but you will be less quick to describe the person you’re talking to as bad or evil,” Disney said.

Zicklin is a long-standing Brooklyn College Foundation trustee; she and her husband, Larry, are among the largest donors to Brooklyn College and the CUNY system. At Brooklyn College, the Zicklins established two endowed chairs and supported the Sandi Salum Memorial Award for students in biology. They also provided endowed support for the Zicklin Scholars Degree Completion Program for students nearing graduation to take classes in the summer or winter that help keep them on track toward graduation.

“When I look out into the audience and see your smiling faces, your sense of optimism, and the life adventures that you’re all about to experience, I know what you’re feeling,” Zicklin said. “I remember the emotion. I wish you every good fortune in the years to come and I hope your life turns out to be at least as good as mine, and if that wish comes true, I hope that you will remember your time at Brooklyn College and try to provide something for those who come after you. As a friend of mine once said: You learn, you earn, and you return.”

(From left) Abigail E. Disney, Valedictorian Rhema Mills, and President Michelle J. Anderson.

Mills, a first-generation college student and immigrant from the Bahamas who became the first Black woman to serve as valedictorian for the college, persevered through health issues, family tragedies, and a first semester spent studying through a pandemic to become valedictorian.

The health and nutrition sciences major embraced the diversity of Brooklyn College while gaining confidence through conducting research, thanks in part to the Tow Mentoring Initiative, a multifaceted range of programs focused on mentorship opportunities for students and faculty. She presented at conferences and coordinated programs while growing through roles on planning committees and club events, including the Women of Color club.

Electrifying Barclays Center while drawing from Nelson Mandela, Mills said courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.

“For me, courage meant ensuring that my voice was heard even when I felt that no one was listening,” Mills said. “It meant applying for scholarships and programs where I would be the only Black woman. Even now, it means daring to dream about a career where my research helps create positive health outcomes for women in marginalized communities.”

Mills, who is ready to pursue a master’s degree in public health to address chronic diseases and racial disparities, urged the Class of 2024 to find their courage.

Thanking her mentors on and off campus, including her mother and late father, Mills reminded the Class of 2024 that the obstacles they overcame gave them the strength to change the world.

“As students and now graduates, we have become ambassadors of this institution and our future selves. What do you want the world to know about you and do you have the courage to show it?”

The Class of 2024 was saluted by CUNY Board of Trustees member Una S.T. Clarke, who served in the New York City Council from the 40th District from 1992 to 2001; Mohamed Attalla, CUNY’s vice chancellor of Facilities Planning, Construction, and Management; Anthony R. Castellanos, chair of the Brooklyn College Foundation Board of Trustees, and others.

A host of elected officials and other distinguished community leaders were also on hand to congratulate the newest Brooklyn College graduates, including U.S. Representative Yvette Clarke of the 9th District, Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynoso, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams ’01, M.A, ’05, and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez.

Wiliams, who earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Brooklyn College, pointed to the power of the degrees the graduates now held.

“It’s important that you understand you have a world-class education,” Williams said. “They call Brooklyn College the poor man’s Harvard. I like to call Harvard the poor man’s Brooklyn College.”

And stressing the importance of being kind and respectful in the face of complicated times, Reynoso quoted The Notorious B.I.G. saying, “Spread love, it’s the Brooklyn way.”

Watch the entire 99th commencement below.