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Pomp and Circumstance

by Alexis Bergen, Allison Engel and Pamela J. Johnson

Cleveland Browns defensive back Daylon McCutcheon presented his mother with the ultimate Mother’s Day gift this year when he graduated from USC College with a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

When the Browns drafted McCutcheon in 1999, he was nearly 30 credit hours short of earning his degree. But at the time, he made a promise to his mother, Deborah Sterling, that he would graduate one day.

For the past several years, McCutcheon has been taking classes at USC, unbeknownst to his mom. All of McCutcheon’s hard work and dedication culminated in the form of a fantastic surprise May 12.

McCutcheon arranged to have his mother and several other family members picked up in a limousine for what they thought was a special family brunch. Instead, the limo drove them to commencement, where Sterling and other surprised family members watched McCutcheon walk across the stage in his cap and gown and receive his degree in sociology.

Everywhere, there were entourages. A degree candidate, in cap and gown, surrounded by camera-toting parents, siblings, relatives. They were the beaming support teams that had made the day possible.
In Tiffany Taylor’s case, the team had swelled to an army. Taylor, of Oakley, Calif., who was receiving her B.S. in biology, was holding court outside the Student Union with 12 members of her extended family. A total of 30 had made the trip from northern California to celebrate her accomplishment. Her parents, Tanya and Tony, were front and center, along with older sister Tatiana and younger brother Tristan. A cousin, best friend, aunts and uncles and godmothers were among the throng.
The graduate said she was keenly aware of her support team throughout her four years at USC. “I talk to everyone almost every day,” she said, laughing. “My first year, I used to talk one hour a day to mom and two hours with my brother.”

The graduation skies were clear and sunny, but Sushrut Kale, Rohit Godkar, Nikhail Sane and Siddharth Adelkar were flapping their arms, kicking their legs and loudly singing a song begging for rain. The four roommates, who each received a master’s degree (biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science and computer science, respectively) were not afflicted with sudden cases of St. Vitus Dance, although it may have looked that way. They were waving their limbs and singing off-key to a huge club hit in Bombay called “Dhagala Lagli Kala,” a traditional folk song from the city of Mumbai that has been given a cool remix. “What hip hop is to L.A., this style of music is to Bombay,” Adelkar said. The dance moves, they said, came from moves perfected by fishermen.

It was the perfect song for graduation, the friends said, since it is all about joy. The lyrics refer to rain falling on thirsty farmlands. “When the clouds start aching, happiness drops,” the song goes, and the four certainly were full of happiness in Hahn Plaza.

Three of the four have definite plans for the future. Kale will pursue a Ph.D. at Purdue, Godkar is working in Los Angeles and thinking about a Ph.D., Sane is working in Los Angeles, and Adelkar has “no clue” what he’ll do, but he’s decided to do it “freezing in Boston.”

Many seniors spend their last semester winding down, but Ashley Moore spent hers fighting for her life. The East Asian languages major from Atlanta found out right before Christmas that a lump on her upper chest was B-cell lymphoma. On the first day of spring semester, she had surgery. Two brutal rounds of chemotherapy followed. Her mother, Arue, flew out and lived in Ashley’s sorority house and the Radisson for seven weeks, driving Ashley to class on days when she could barely see straight or muster the strength to walk a flight of stairs. It was after spring break before Ashley, a straight-A student, was able to make it through a full week of class.

Before her long blond hair fell out, she dyed it hot pink. Her Gamma Phi Beta sorority sisters bought hot pink wigs in solidarity. Her boyfriend, Alex McAuley, a senior engineering student, was “incredible,” Moore said, accompanying her to nearly every medical appointment. Earlier, the two had been apart for seven months when she studied in China, and they thought that was the biggest hurdle their relationship would face.

Good news started coming in the form of more normal white blood cell counts. In April, Moore participated in Relay for Life. More recently, a PET scan revealed that the cancer was completely gone. On the last day of school, Kappa Sigma fraternity members arrived at the Gamma Phi house, singing, and Alex surprised Ashley by presenting her with his fraternity pin.

Having cancer and spending time in hospitals showed her an entirely different side of life, Moore said. “Now, cancer research and funding for cancer patients will be a lifelong philanthropy for me.”

Typically, a person wouldn’t compare one’s mother to a neurotic, very small dog with pointed ears.

But Rachel S. Thurston isn’t typical.

“If my mother were a dog, she’d be a Chihuahua,” Thurston flatly said during her graduation ceremony. “She’s super feisty. Especially when she’s mad.”
Thurston’s mother, Karen Cluster Thurston, was cheering at the sidelines while Thurston received her master’s degree in professional writing. During the event, Rachel’s friend greeted Karen.

“Hey, you must be Mama Chihuahua!” the young mortarboard-clad stranger said. Rachel’s fellow grads feel like they know Karen from Rachel’s stories. Karen takes it all in stride.

When you receive degrees from three colleges in the time many people complete one, it’s safe to say you have wrung every last drop out of your college experience. Marin Babb managed that feat, picking up degrees from the USC Marshall School of Business and the USC School of Cinema-Television, while never receiving any grade lower than an A. And she will finish an English degree at USC College this fall.

“Scheduling was interesting every semester,” she said, smiling.

She rounded out the bulk of her USC career without leaving any extra time on the table, staying up all night to write a paper on John Milton and turning it in 10 minutes before the 4 p.m. deadline.

Babb, of Woodland Hills, is not a student who kept adding courses and majors as she went on. From the day she applied to USC, she knew she wanted degrees in business, cinema and English. What she didn’t anticipate was how much she would like her business classes, particularly accounting and math.

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