baccalaureate service

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, deliver Baccalaureate address.

Baccalaureate Speaker Rachel Laser of Americans United to Graduates: ‘Be Authentically Yourself’

Class of 2024 graduating seniors celebrate Baccalaureate Saturday by sharing their faith and reflecting on their time at Lehigh.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Kristi Morris

Graduating students, along with their families and friends, filled Packer Memorial Church on a rainy Saturday afternoon for an interfaith Baccalaureate ceremony featuring an address by Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, inspirational words by fellow graduates of different faiths and classical music played by a trio of string instrumentalists.

The centuries-old event—believed to have originated at the University of Oxford in 1432—is a prelude to the graduation ceremony on Sunday, a time for graduates to celebrate and give thanks for all the help they received from family, friends and mentors during their time at Lehigh, said Rev. Lloyd Steffen, university chaplain and professor of religious studies who officiated the ceremony.

“We remind ourselves that if we are to be faithful to the university’s mission, and true to the spiritual demands of working and studying here, we must pledge ourselves to service in the world and attend to the needs of all our brothers and sisters,” Steffen told the graduates before introducing the speakers.

Laser said she was excited and humbled to share in Lehigh’s graduation ceremonies, but those feelings quickly gave way to anxiety when she remembered she’d have to write a speech.

Despite writing a monthly column for Church & State, the magazine of Americans United, and writing op-eds for The Washington Post and The New York Times, Laser said she’s always struggled as a writer. She called her sister, the accomplished poet, Jessica Laser, for advice.

Her sister told her that her struggle with the speech was a possible way into writing it. That advice, she said, provided the breakthrough she needed and highlighted what she wanted to say: “That asking for help is brave, and being yourself, even when it means being someone who is struggling or different from those around you, is essential for our individual successes and our collective one.”

Laser shared three pieces of advice.

Ask For Help

In America, there’s a whole ethos about rugged individualism and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, Laser said.

“But when you’re struggling, being vulnerable enough to ask for help is a great way to solve problems and feel better,” she said. “We all have different perspectives, skills and talents, so asking for help from someone with strengths in the space where you’re stuck can bring you valuable information and insight.”

Rachel Laser

Rachel Laser advises graduating seniors to 'be authentically yourself.'

Be Authentically Yourself

When Laser was applying to be head of Americans United, Rev. Barry Lynn had just retired from more than 25 years of being the organization’s beloved leader.

“Barry and I are very different people. He is a male, Christian pastor from an older generation who also happens to love to do stand-up comedy,” Laser said. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have been as caught off guard as I was when, during my final interview for the job, one of the organization’s trustees asked me to tell a joke.”

In a panic, Laser told a joke about the chicken crossing the road, but then made herself add that she would be a different leader than Lynn. Laser is the first female and non-Christian leader of Americans United in its 76-year history.

“And by the way, while I’m not funny, male or a member of the clergy, I’m self-aware, able to talk about complex things and brave—all qualities I would bring to my leadership of (Americans United),” she said. “I think the (Americans United) Board of Trustees saw who I was that day.”

Laser said she has learned that being authentic is not only the best way to bring your greatest contribution, it’s also a powerful way to connect with people.

“Here’s a theory as to why being authentic connects you to others. When you’re authentic, you’re putting yourself out there,” she said. “You’re making yourself vulnerable. And when you’re vulnerable, others connect to that strongly. Because it’s a shared human experience, people relate to it. They admired your courage. They get inspired to be authentic, too.”

Help Others Be Themselves

Individuals can reach out to their friends and offer to help them figure themselves out when they’re stuck or recommend who else might be able to help them. Individuals can model being authentic and vulnerable, which inspires others to do the same, Laser said.

Some graduates may be considering dedicating their career to working for a more inclusive America, she said.

“The reason I’m proud to lead Americans United for Separation of Church and State is because this separation allows people of all religious beliefs, the nonreligious, and all of us who do not pass one religion’s litmus test, to be ourselves no matter our religion, race, sex, sexual orientation or gender identity,” Laser said.

She encouraged graduates to think about what a privilege it is to be part of such a thriving community, and what a privilege it was to attend Baccalaureate and share that experience across each other’s different faiths and beliefs.

“Communities that invite everyone to be their authentic selves are communities that thrive,” she said.

Words From the Traditions

In addition to Laser’s address, graduates heard from two classmates of different faiths who each shared something meaningful to them.

Rose Genstein ’24

Rose Genstein ’24

Rose Genstein ’24 has been active in The Hillel Society of Lehigh University, serving for two years as vice president. She was recognized for her efforts on behalf of Hillel with the Levy Award, which honors outstanding contributions to Jewish life on local campuses. She graduates with a major in business information systems and a minor in computer science.

Genstein read a portion of the Torah called Parashat Emor which calls on readers to lead lives of holiness and integrity. She also referenced Dr. Seuss in “Oh the Places You’ll Go!” Both readings resonate deeply with the personal journeys many undertake, especially as college chapters come to a close.

“As we reflect on the timeless wisdom of Parashat Emor and the enduring inspiration of Dr. Seuss’s words, may we embark on our respective paths with hearts and minds open to the beauty and possibilities that surround us,” she said.

Huda Hagos ’24

Huda Hagos ’24

Huda Hagos ’24 is a first-generation Ethiopian American graduating with a major in environmental studies and a minor in political science. She received a Williams Prize award for her academic writing in her Arabic classes at Lehigh, and she was awarded the 2023 Linda Washington Jafari Legacy Prize Award for her achievement in her academic, personal and co-curricular involvement.

In her time at Lehigh, Hagos has been an active member of the Muslim Students Association, serving as its president.

Hagos said one of her favorite memories from Lehigh was this past Ramandan and getting to see the Muslim community at Lehigh everyday, breaking their fasts, praying and worshiping together. Islam highlights the importance of gaining knowledge, she said.

“This year in particular, I learned about the importance of standing up for your values, challenging the norm and engaging in difficult conversations,” Hagos said. “Most of all, I’ve learned about the importance of creating community and learning from one another…”

Saturday’s Baccalaureate was dedicated to Rev. Emmajane Steffen Finney, wife of Lloyd Steffen. Finney passed away on May 8.

Story by

Christina Tatu

Photography by

Kristi Morris

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