Winthrop University’s DiGiorgio: Graduates should ‘live their lives with passion’

adouglas@heraldonline.comMay 3, 2013 

  • 24 years at Winthrop by the numbers

    As Winthrop’s president, DiGiorgio has:

    • Awarded more than 26,000 degrees to students

    • Given 41 honorary degrees

    • Presided over 71 graduation ceremonies

    • Led the university to 100 percent national accreditation

    • Guided more than $58 million in capital construction projects

  • 24 years at Winthrop by the numbers

    As Winthrop’s president, DiGiorgio has:

    • Awarded more than 26,000 degrees to students

    • Given 41 honorary degrees

    • Presided over 71 graduation ceremonies

    • Led the university to 100 percent national accreditation

    • Guided more than $58 million in capital construction projects

For more than two decades, he’s been high-fived, hugged or shaken hands with more than 26,000 Winthrop University graduates.

On Saturday afternoon, retiring President Anthony DiGiorgio will hand out hundreds more college diplomas as he presides over his final graduation ceremony.

Putting the reins in someone else’s hands is not “goodbye” for DiGiorgio, he has said, but “sayonara” to the campus community he’s led for nearly 24 years.

After retirement this summer and a year’s sabbatical, DiGiorgio will return to serve on campus as Winthrop’s president emeritus and distinguished service professor.

One of the nation’s longest-serving university presidents, DiGiorgio has been credited with transforming the 127-year-old Rock Hill campus from a regional school into a nationally-recognized institution of great interest to international students.

What stuck with him the most during his first Winthrop graduation ceremony in 1989 is something that still amazes him, DiGiorgio said.

“Seeing so much multi-generational happiness, especially among the families of first-generation college students, is a very vivid memory for me,” he said.

“Still today, church vans sometimes will bring a student’s entire family circle – 15 people or more, representing as many as four generations– to take part in the event. It was wonderful to see that at the first ceremony, and it’s wonderful to see now.”

DiGiorgio on Friday answered questions from The Herald via email about his favorite memories of Winthrop graduations and what he thinks about when handing students their degrees.

What is his favorite graduation memory?

“There have been so many moments over the years – usually when pure joy seems to be radiating from a student so powerfully that you can almost feel it as his or her name is called. Yet for me, nothing will ever top the moment when German student-athlete Eckart Dietz crossed the stage, because of all he – and we at Winthrop – had been through together. Seeing him finally receive his degree affirmed Winthrop’s values, and touched us all deeply on multiple levels.”

Dietz was one of seven Winthrop tennis players injured during a car accident in Mississippi in 1993. One student was killed in the wreck.

After years of rehabilitation, Dietz returned to Winthrop in 1998, when DiGiorgio awarded him his college diploma.

What will he be thinking on Saturday when the last undergraduate student’s name is read and they are walking toward him across the stage?

“There’s a quote from former Yale President Bart Giamatti that has been a mantra for me for a number of years, and I think of it at every commencement.”

The quote is, “The university today is … where most of us first began to find a voice. It is …a good place that continues to want to make her children better.”

As he retires and Saturday’s graduates prepare to start their own careers and lives, what is the most important piece of advice he can give them?

“In short, I advise them to live their lives with passion for all they do. It’s a thought more fully developed in what I tell them as part of the ceremony: ‘Wherever you go, I urge you to approach your lives, your careers and your families with enthusiasm. Work well, play well, love well, think clearly. Bring your sense of humor, your sense of honor, and your sense of compassion to all your interactions.’”

What’s it been like all these years, standing on stage and watching students reach their goal of graduating?

“One can’t help but feel gratified. Maybe it sounds a little corny, but thousands of students over the years have reached a milestone that’s opened myriad opportunities for them to fulfill their life’s aspirations. Being a part of them reaching that milestone has been satisfying work.”

Thinking back to the Anthony DiGiorgio who crossed a graduation ceremony stage at Gannon College and then Purdue University, what would that young man think about Winthrop University President Anthony DiGiorgio, retiring after more than two decades of service? Did you imagine your life and career would be the way it is today?

“I never could have imagined my life and career becoming what it has. I was a first-generation American boy from an ethnic minority family whose aspirations were incremental, thinking just a few years ahead at any given time. There were no examples within my family or my neighborhood of setting big life goals. For my parents, America and education for their children were the aspirations. My family mostly took life as it came and tried to make the most of any opportunities that might arise.

“My getting to go to college was amazing – that’s why over the years I have identified so strongly with Winthrop students who are from racial minorities or are the first in their families to earn a college degree. Knowing what a difference education has made in my own life helped me understand what a difference it can make in theirs, both personally and professionally.

“That’s why it will always be exciting to me to see what our students do with the educations they have earned at Winthrop.”

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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