In a time when group gatherings are out of the question, members of the Class of 2020 are finding creative ways of celebrating the milestone of their college graduation.
Montclair State graduates have found joy in both grand gestures and in simple, ordinary moments during an extraordinary time.
“It’s a collection of small experiences and pleasures that I’ve allowed to happen,” says J. Martha Wachulec of Bayonne, New Jersey, who earned a Master of Arts in Teaching, with certifications in Music and Students with Disabilities.
With Montclair State Commencement and Convocation ceremonies postponed until it’s safe to gather together, students say their families and communities have tried to make this a special time.
“You can tell people want to celebrate you. They feel for you that you can’t get that highest utmost honor of walking across the stage. So they’re doing what they can,” Wachulec says.
That’s what brought her family to campus during a Sunday afternoon’s golden hour. Wachulec prepared the props to keep the moment light and fun, including a sign for her parents, “No more tuition payments.”
“People were passing through campus, walking their dogs or with family, and every person who walked by or drove by called out, ‘Congratulations!’ They were honking their horns and asking what degree I had earned.”
The gown and cap and the walk across stage, those are symbolic, Wachulec says. “My learning, my experiences, the people I’ve met in my time at Montclair State, those are mine. Nothing can take that away from me.”
On the morning of what should have been her daughter Jasmine’s convocation, Taiesha Barber woke her with a cheerful, “Happy graduation day!”
“At first I didn’t think I would miss the celebration,” says Jasmine Barber, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English while working full time and writing and self-publishing romance novels in her spare time.
But as it got closer, she felt she was missing out. So did her mother, who works at the Children’s Hospital of New Jersey at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, a front line of the coronavirus crisis.
Despite the challenges of the last two months, Taiesha Barber was determined to surprise her daughter with a celebration she would never forget, especially since Jasmine will be leaving for a teaching position in Texas.
“My mom is also a photographer, and she told me we were going to the park for pictures,” says Jasmine, who lives with her family in Newark, New Jersey. “I got dressed in my cap and gown and went outside. And then I heard the fire trucks.”
A long line of emergency vehicles, and family and friends in cars slowly passed by, honking and waving, as Jasmine, shocked, brushed away tears.
“For 30 minutes we shut down a road to celebrate and forget the craziness that we’re actually living in right now,” her mother recalls.
Typically, Montclair State’s graduation traditions include undergraduate Convocations on campus, where names are read and the spirit of each school celebrated. A giant undergraduate Commencement is held at Prudential Center in Newark. Formal ceremonies for The Graduate School are held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. Altogether, until the pandemic forced a postponement, more than 5,000 caps were to fly at those ceremonies.
“We’re resilient, and no matter what, we’re going to keep on pushing through it. Pandemic or no pandemic,” says Joseph Lopez of Clifton, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Justice Studies.
“I’m trying to take in this moment with the family who is in my house,” Lopez says. “I am first-generation and the last of my parents’ kids to graduate. I’m celebrating with them and trying not to undervalue the milestone.”
A Long Time Coming
JoAnn Vespucci has waited more than 20 years to celebrate this moment. She’s taken one class at a time to fit her schedule and budget, a winding path to earning a bachelor’s degree in Psychology.
“This is such a happy and sad time for me to finally graduate,” Vespucci says. “It felt like something was missing, and that something was celebrating with my family at the ceremonies at school. But my siblings made that day special for me with a cake and decorations and music, but most of all, lots of laughing and picture taking.”
Vespucci moved to Bloomfield, New Jersey, after graduating high school in Ohio and relocating with her family in 1978. Her mother always hoped she would go to college, but it wasn’t until many years later that she began to take courses.
“My mom was so proud of me when I started at the community college that she actually threw a graduation party for me after my first class. What I thought was silly then has since meant the world to me,” Vespucci says.
In 1996, she transferred to Montclair State as an undeclared student, and after taking a few psychology classes she knew what her major would be.
“I have a twin sister who began to suffer depression at the age of 16. Early in her adult life she was diagnosed with clinical depression, and it has been a difficult road for her on and off. All I wanted to do was understand. I hated to see her struggling just to smile,” Vespucci says. “As time went on and the more psychology classes I took, I learned and I began to understand more.”
Reflecting on her graduation, Vespucci says she misses not sharing this accomplishment with her late mother. “Not having her here with me for this special time has been emotional. She had faith and confidence in me that I would graduate. I truly believe these life stories are what pushed me to keep going.”
From drive-by parades and makeshift ceremonies to the decorations and photos, Montclair State graduates have bonded over their shared experiences as the Class of COVID-19.
“We made it through the toughest semester in history, and we will be able to tell the story to the generations that may come after us,” says Jherel Saunders-Dittimus, the Student Government Association president in a video created with University President Susan A. Cole for the graduating class.
Those stories include a French bulldog named Paco who “walked” in a mini cap and gown at a virtual celebration for Coldin Grundmeyer of New Orleans, Louisiana, who earned a BFA in Acting and Musical Theatre.
Students are told their graduation will be more memorable because of the hardships of staying apart. Jorge Mario Car, a Business Management major from North Bergen, agrees, saying his drive-by party is something he’ll treasure.
Alexa Bufi of Saddle Brook, New Jersey, was happy a drive-by parade allowed her grandparents to participate. She recalls sitting in the Montclair State bleachers watching the Convocation for her older brother, Carmine Bufi ’14, turning to her mother with a promise, “When I go to college, I’m going to graduate with honors.”
She stayed true to her word. Bufi earned a BA in Jurisprudence and Political Science with highest honors. “It’s definitely something I’m really proud of. I worked hard and it was an amazing moment to see how my promise came full circle.”
Joel Grullon Cepeda of Paterson, a double major earning a BS in Business Administration with a dual concentration in International Business and Management, and a BA in Language, Business and Culture with a concentration in Spanish and Latino Studies, still hopes to have his extended family gather when the time is safe.
“For me personally, this is a huge milestone in my life so I want to be able to celebrate. I’m just playing the waiting game.”
Words of Inspiration
As a BFA Dance major, Kelly Beck is used to dancing on stage. It was the walk across it that she was looking forward to. But with the in-person Convocation postponed, the College of the Arts went virtual, allowing Beck a chance for one last “performance,” a surprise for her mother Kathleen (Lenehan) Beck, a 1983 Montclair State graduate, and the rest of her family watching on Zoom from their home in Metuchen, New Jersey.
Kelly hadn’t told anyone, but she had been tapped as the Convocation speaker, appearing on the video and thanking them for their support.
For her final ballet class, Kelly wore her cap and gown, posting the video on Instagram and tagging a role model, the actress Jennifer Garner. It was another wonderful surprise when Garner commented: “I still remember my last ballet class in college – at least I got to hug my buddies when it was over.”
As the final semester began, getting so close to graduating “felt too good to be true,” recalls Tasneem Abushaban, a Public Health major from Phillipsburg, New Jersey. She told her advisor that she felt like something was going to happen. “And then it did. It’s funny to think back on.”
The graduates have given each other the inspirational advice usually reserved for Commencement speakers. They refuse to allow the pandemic to define their experiences.
Drawing on her faith, Wheatherly Almonte of Paterson, New Jersey, who graduated with a degree in Family Science and Human Development, shared lyrics from a favorite hymn: Nobody told me that the road would be easy, but I don’t believe he’s brought me this far to leave me. “I honestly feel like that,” she says. “We’re going to get through.”
“Stay beautiful, strong and focused. No matter what, always believe in yourself,” adds Fatimat Tanko of Newark, New Jersey, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Arabic.
And while Saunders-Dittimus, the SGA president, didn’t get to make his formal Commencement speech, he doesn’t mind much. “I probably would have cried,” says Saunders-Dittimus, a native of Camden, New Jersey, who earned a BA in Communication Studies.
By overcoming all of the challenges posed by COVID-19, Saunders-Dittimus says he believes his fellow graduates are well prepared for what comes next and that people will know it.
“Oh, you graduated from that class. I’m hiring you.”
Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren.
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