Almost 1,100 Southern Connecticut State University graduates were treated to a ringside seat at a marriage proposal, received a bar of soap from the commencement speaker and heard a farewell serenade from the president Friday.
The marriage proposal occurred just after Deanna Bradley, a social work major from Madison, was handed her diploma. She walked down the stairs from the stage at the Webster Bank Arena, and there in his military blues was her boyfriend — U.S. Army Spc. Harley Pretty.
Bradley knew that Harley had returned home from his post in Egypt, but she had no idea of the rest of his plans.
Pretty told her quietly that he loved her and didn't want to spend his life with anyone else, Bradley recalled later. Then, Pretty plunged to a knee to ask for Bradley's hand and produced a diamond ring to her shrieks of delight and a long embrace.
"I am so surprised. It was amazing," Bradley said. "He's everything I ever wanted, he's perfect."
Pretty said he's not given to public displays but when it came to Bradley, it was easy. "It's something I'd been thinking about for a long time," Pretty said. "I've had a lot of time on my hands over in Egypt.
"I figured if I'm going to do it, I might as well do it big," he said. "I figured what better way to let her know how much I love her than to do it in front of everyone."
The commencement day also came with inspiration from Derreck Kayongo, a Ugandan refugee who founded the Global Soap Project, which recycles used hotel soap and redistributes it to impoverished populations around the world.
Kayongo said the idea occurred to him when he was staying in an American hotel. He noticed that there were several kinds of soap in his room and every day — often after he pocketed it — new soap would appear.
Having spent time as a refugee, he knew that soap was very scarce in some parts of the world, and that infection and death resulted because of poor hygiene.
He did some research and found that American hotels throw away 2.6 million bars of soap every day. Back in Uganda, Kayongo's father had been a soapmaker, so Kayongo had an idea to recycle the leftover soap.
It took him 10 years to bring the project to full fruition, but now Kayongo collects soap from 5,500 hotels and recycles and distributes it to people in 90 countries.
He urged the students "to see and observe where all the problems are" that need to be fixed.
Kayongo urged the students to be patientand to network, and then ordered them to "Show up, show up, show up!" He personally handed every student a bar of soap as a memento of the graduation.
Kayongo's message resonated with the words of the university's president, Joe Bertolino, who told the students he'd like Southern to be recognized as a "social justice university."
"Relationships matter," Bertolino said. "People, not things, ultimately matter."
"It's all about equity, fairness and a level playing field," Bertolino said. "At the core of social justice is compassion."
Bertolino launched into song, giving a bluesy farewell befitting the bittersweet feeling of the day: "We're going to miss you by your walk, we're going to miss you by your talk. We're going to miss you when you're gone."