By Richard Burnett
On graduation day, in which neurodiversity icon Dr. Temple Grandin graced the stage, Beacon College senior Sydni Sugar thought of her late parents, who died before she finished high school. She remembered her battle to overcome learning differences — and how proud they would be of her this day.
“While I wish nothing more than to have them here today, I still know they are here,” said Beacon’s co-valedictorian at its May 6 commencement, the 33rd in its history. “I know a lot of my determination, grit and perseverance I owe to them.”
Her sentiment resonated with the 116 graduates of Beacon’s Class of 2023, who listened in quiet agreement and reflected on their own their own stories. It was a group – the largest graduating class in the college’s history – that bonded in adversity during their four-year trek, much of which took place dealing with Covid-19 isolation, in addition to their own learning challenges.
Beacon President Dr. George Hagerty gave a big nod to the special place this class would always hold in the college’s story.
“We are so very, very proud of you because we know you are our most enduring legacy – how you live your life and the work you do to improve the world. It is our legacy to the world,” he said. “You have been trailblazers, pathfinders and innovators — and you did so at a very extraordinary time in the nation and the world.”
From orphanage to top of the class
For Zhilin Strong-Allen — known as Gwei (way) to everyone — graduation day prompted reflections on how far she had come in her life. Memories came flooding back of her early childhood in a Chinese orphanage. Even after her adoptive parents brought her to the U.S., she continued to struggle “in every way — physically, emotionally and socially, which created some real challenges I had to overcome,” the co-valedictorian said.
Her parents finally enrolled her in a specialty school for neurodivergent students, where her life and education began to come together. She was eventually accepted at Beacon, where she found her stride.
“When I came to Beacon, I was a shy freshman, and, thanks to all of you — my teachers, support staff and friends, I am an accomplished senior,” she said. “Now I can say and see that all my challenging experiences made me stronger. I have gained so much knowledge, experience and academic skill here. A huge shout out and thanks to everyone who was involved in my Beacon journey.”
Other award winners recognized included Alexander Patrick Rhodes, salutatorian, and departmental recipients Xavier Thomas (department of business and technology), Clifton “Trey” Kew (department of human services and psychology), Ryan Looney (department of humanities) and Wilkinson Jones (department of studio arts).
In all, the college awarded 10 Associate of Arts degrees, 13 Associate of Science degrees, 23 Bachelor of Arts degrees and 70 Bachelor of Science degrees.
An unorthodox, but brilliant daughter
Arguably no one could appreciate the graduates’ stories more than Grandin, the commencement speaker and trailblazing scientist and national disability advocate, whose life was featured in an Emmy-winning HBO biopic starring Claire Danes. The Boston native’s remarkable story of courage and success despite seemingly insurmountable odds has inspired millions around the world. She received an honorary doctorate degree from Beacon during the May 6 commencement ceremony.
“The Cambridge Dictionary defines trailblazer as the first person to do something or to go somewhere to show that it is possible for others,” said Darryl E. Owens, Beacon’s associate vice president of communications and engagement, introducing Grandin. “In the world of neurodivergence, nobody embodies the meaning of trailblazer better than Dr. Temple Grandin.”
Diagnosed with autism decades ago as a child — when it was often considered a mental illness — doctors urged her parents to institutionalize Grandin. But her mother refused. She would not rest until she found an enlightened school that could begin to tap into the genius of her unorthodox, but brilliant daughter.
Today, Grandin is an internationally-recognized inventor of livestock handling technology, advocate for humane practices, and expert in agriculture — an interest that began years ago when she would visit her uncle’s farm in Arizona. She has written more than 400 scientific articles on livestock practices, 25 books on autism, and two autobiographical memoirs.
An inductee in the National Women’s Hall of Fame, Grandin teaches animal sciences at Colorado State University, has been named to Time Magazine’s annual list of “100 Most Influential People in the World,” and consults with major agriculture corporations. A group of Beacon anthrozoology students launched a campaign in 2021 to land Grandin as a commencement speaker.
In her speech, Grandin moved deftly from the practical to the complicated — including personal anecdotes about living with autism, subjects such as construction engineering, insights into problems with the educational system, analysis of different types of thinking and the problem of “skill loss” in U.S. industry.
For example, she is a visual thinker, Grandin said, which means she thinks “in pictures,” which helps her in solving problems and understanding building and plant construction. But people who think like her are often being squeezed out of the educational system these days and that means a lot of people with certain skills are being lost.
“We’ve got some very serious problems with skill loss,” Grandin said. “You know, now we no longer make the state-of-the-art electronic chip-making machines in the U.S. I’m talking about like the fancy chips that go in the iPhone. Also, all of our food-processing equipment comes from Holland and Italy — both high wage countries. … But the visual thinker who can invent all this mechanically complicated equipment for a plant is getting screened out in the U.S., and this is something that educators just don’t seem to understand.”
Grandin exclaims, ‘Get out there and get things done’
In a final word to Beacon’s graduates, Grandin — who had taken her seat after completing her remarks — sprang up, borrowed the mic from Hagerty, and readdressed the graduates, speaking to the struggles she faced as someone with autism trying to make her mark and prove herself in the professional world.
“We have to show people that we can get things done,” she said. “When I did my first [agricultural] projects, a lot of people just thought I was stupid and wouldn’t amount to nothing. So that was one of the things that really motivated me in building those projects — to prove I wasn’t stupid. So, I say to you, go out there and just get things done.”
The graduates and faculty rose in a standing ovation, one of several during Grandin’s talk.
“I want to express our gratitude to Dr. Temple Grandin,” Dr. Hagerty said, in closing. “You are really an icon for the world, but particularly for Beacon College. You’ve graced this stage and honored us. You really do have the sense that we’re all different, we’re all special, and that is absolutely magnificent. You have definitely pursued the life abundant, and as [singer/songwriter] Sia says in ‘Unstoppable,’ you’re like a Porsche with no brakes.”