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(Soundbite of music)

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

The sun was shining today on New Orleans as 2,000 Tulane University students took part in the schools' first commencement since Hurricane Katrina. The storm had put most of the campus underwater. Today's keynote speakers, former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, recognized the students for their courage and tenacity.

NPR's Cheryl Corley has our report.

CHERYL CORLEY reporting:

Tulane's graduation had all the markings of a New Orleans celebration. Along with the speeches, there were Mardi Gras beads, balloons and music. As a jazz band played, the students twirled white handkerchiefs (unintelligible) emblem of the city. Nearly 90 percent of Tulane students returned for the school's spring semester.

Graduate Paul Matthews, a 22-year-old political science major from New Orleans who lost his home in the storm, called today special.

Mr. PAUL MATTHEWS (Graduate, Tulane University): I'm able to bring all my family and friends from Georgia and Texas who have lost their homes, and just coming back to this one event to celebrate this great accomplishment. And also, this is a great opportunity just to show how New Orleans is coming back. And the Tulane and New Orleans community is going to show how strong and how much resolve that we really have.

CORLEY: Usually, Tulane holds its commencement in the Super Dome, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The graduation was moved this year to the city's Arena. Tulane President Dr. Scott Cowan said the graduation was a miracle. And he thanked the school staff and the students' parents and family members.

Dr. SCOTT COWAN (President, Tulane University): Despite the misgivings and concerns you must have felt, you allowed your sons or daughters, or your sisters or your brothers, to return to New Orleans and Tulane University. You are our believers. Thank you for your trust and for making our miracle a reality.

(Soundbite of applause)

CORLEY: As they walked into the Arena, former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush received a standing ovation. The two have raised nearly $130 million for victims of Hurricane Katrina. President Bush told the students what he had seen during the fundraising effort is proof that people care.

President GEORGE H. W. BUSH: And when I look at what happened along the Gulf Coast, I still believe in heroes. When I look at our world, the good I see far outweighs the bad. Which may be explains why I'm a real optimist about the future that you all will be facing.

CORLEY: President Clinton congratulated the students on their public service.

President BILL CLINTON: So as you gave 38,000 hours of volunteer service in the wake of Katrina, I ask all of you whatever you do with your lives to try to find some space in it, always, to be a private citizen doing public good.

CORLEY: Clinton told the students the work of individuals outside of government and in non-profit groups is sweeping the globe. After the presidents spoke, the students began receiving their degrees. But there was also a surprise guest: native Louisianan comedian Ellen DeGeneres. She got more applause than the two former presidents, and she offered this bit of life advice.

Ms. ELLEN DEGENERES (Comedian): Really, I came up with, you know, to take care of yourselves. Because when you're younger you don't really listen. Your parents tell and so I really want to say it. Exfoliate...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DEGENERES: No, wait. Hydrate is first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DEGENERES: Then exfoliate. And then moisturize. And then exercise, then floss. So HEMEF, if you can remember that, that way. HEMEF.

CORLEY: And with that the celebration began.

(Soundbite of cheering, explosions, and jazz trumpet)

CORLEY: Balloons drooped from the ceiling and the music resumed, as the 2006 Tulane graduation ended in a traditional New Orleans second line parade.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, New Orleans.

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