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University celebrates the Class of 2020 with 21 smaller, in-person outdoor Commencement ceremonies

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A proud graduate of Montclair State's College of Humanities and Social Sciences at 2020 Commencement Ceremonies.

Montclair State University graduates began celebrating a delayed but much anticipated Commencement over 21 small, separate, in-person ceremonies – replete with proper safety measures – starting Saturday, July 18 at Sprague Field on the University campus.

“We are so thankful that New Jerseyans bent the COVID-19 curve low enough to enable us to begin to re-open our state and to allow us this day together,” President Susan A. Cole told graduates at the ceremonies.

“These past several months have been a difficult time,” Cole added in her remarks to graduates. “We have marveled at your tenacity and resilience in the face of adversity, and we are proud of all that you have accomplished in your time at Montclair State University, including this last semester when you did not let the pandemic keep you from reaching your goal.”

Before, during and after each ceremony, the University is observing state and federal safety guidelines. Safety measures include mandatory social distancing and the wearing of face coverings – to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread.

Faculty and students are not required to attend and each of the ceremonies is being live streamed and recorded so those who cannot attend can watch remotely. Some of the University’s schools and colleges held virtual graduation celebrations in May when 4,380 degrees were conferred.

“I really appreciate the fact that Montclair is giving us the opportunity to have an in-person ceremony. Although it’ll be a little different than we pictured, I’m excited to walk with my friends,” says Stephanie Pitera who earned her master’s in Public and Organizational Relations from the College of the Arts. “I think it was a really great idea to have a week of ceremonies. This way we can celebrate and stay safe at the same time.”

The initial 23 outdoor commencement ceremonies on Sprague Field were made possible once New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy raised the limit on outdoor events to 500 people. With one day’s small ceremonies postponed and combined because of weather, the University reduced the number to 21 ceremonies still under the governor’s guidelines, all spaced out with time between each one for spray sanitation of the stadium, with the last ceremonies scheduled for Friday, July, 24

“I would like to feel celebrated”

While not all graduates chose to attend the ceremonies, those who opted to participate are enthusiastic and thankful for the opportunity to celebrate.

Due to the mandatory quarantine for travelers, Coldin Grundmeyer’s parents from New Orleans weren’t able to make the ceremony, but Grundmeyer says he wouldn’t miss it for the world.

“I feel like it’s a memory you can’t really replace,” he says. “Even during these crazy times I feel that it’ll be very special to see my friends and people I saw in the halls all those years to receive the recognition they deserve.”

Grundmeyer, who earned a BFA in Acting and Musical Theatre, will stay in the New York City area to pursue his acting career while also attending Georgetown University for a master’s degree in Sports Management.

JoAnn Vespucci has waited more than 20 years to celebrate this moment. After transferring to Montclair State as an undeclared student in 1996, she’s taken one class at a time to fit her schedule and budget.

After taking some psychology classes, Vespucci knew she found her calling.

“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.”

Vespucci’s twin sister was in the bleachers, cheering her on as she accepted her bachelor’s degree in Psychology.

It takes a village

If no one has taken longer than Vespucci, no one has traveled farther than Fatimata Diabate, who earned her bachelor’s in Public Health. Born in the United States, she spent part of her childhood in West Africa, returning to start school at age 8. Diabate was first rejected by Montclair but called to ask what she could do to make herself a better candidate. Her persistence landed her a spot in the Educational Opportunity Fund program – as the first member of her family to step foot on a college campus.

Diabate was a student speaker at the three ceremonies for the College of Education and Human Services.

“As I reflect on my college experience, I think of the phrase, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’” Diabate told graduates Thursday, July 23. “For when I first came to the College of Education and Human Services, I was indeed a child, without a clue, lacking important academic skills. And now, as I leave, I am a young woman who, with the help of professors, advisors, deans, fellow students and so many others – and a lot of hard work – has found her voice, has learned to trust her thoughts and has a lot to say.”

Former Student Government Association President Jherel Saunders-Dittimus attended one of the four College of the Arts ceremonies, and sat on the platform with the president, provost, dean and faculty.

“I chose to do the in-person ceremony because I will never be able to experience it again – well, at least for undergrad. Personally it was a huge milestone for myself and even though the pandemic ruined my last year, I would like to feel celebrated. My mother and my father are my two guests. This means a lot to them because I am the only child and I am also a first generation college student.”

By overcoming all of the challenges posed by the pandemic, Saunders-Dittimus, who earned a BA in Communication Studies, says he believes his fellow graduates are well prepared for what comes next and that people will know it.

He says that employers will say, “Oh, you graduated from that class. I’m hiring you.”

A sense of hope

The safety measures helped allay some initial qualms about attending the ceremonies, and faculty members who participated expressed joy in sharing the moment with their now-former students.

“I felt it was important to show up for our students,” says Marylou Naumoff, assistant professor in Communication Studies and the coordinator of the Fundamentals of Speech Program. Naumoff served as a Master of Ceremonies and read the names of students as they walked across the stage at one the College of the Arts ceremonies.

“They have had so many of their expectations not met because of the pandemic I wanted to be part of giving them something,” Naumoff says. “Seeing the students – and their loved ones – still able to celebrate, walk across the stage and mark their accomplishments gave me a tremendous sense of hope. It was something that we all need right now.”

“I always love the energy and joy of commencement, and this year was no different in that regard,” says Gabriel Rubin, associate professor of Justice Studies and vice chair of Justice Studies Department, who performed as the Master of Ceremonies for one of six College of Humanities and Social Sciences commencement ceremonies.

“The students’ faces were covered, but their joy was unbounded. They were all rightfully proud of all they had accomplished,” Rubin says. “I am so happy that I chose to partake of this opportunity because I got to see so many of my wonderful Justice Studies students graduate. And I must say that the University did its best to provide a safe environment.”

Assistant Professor of Theatre and Dance Heather Benton served as a Master of Ceremonies and name reader for two of the Feliciano School of Business commencement exercises. “Although I was masked, spoke inside of a plexiglass cube and read names off of cards I received with gloves on, the gratitude and perseverance of the students and families present were so moving,” Benton says.

“It was a historic moment for the University,” adds Acting Chairperson for Social Work and Child Advocacy Jason Dickinson. “I wanted to support the students, be part of that history, and participate in the University’s first step towards reopening.”

“It was fun, but I hope we don’t have to repeat it next year.”

Taking flight

As each long day of multiple commencements has progressed in the heat and the sun, University staff and faculty continue to provide high levels of safety as well as celebratory spirit. And the graduates and families are appreciative.

“Being able to walk across the stage and receive my diploma was a dream come true, and I couldn’t be happier,” says Alexa Bufi, who graduated summa cum laude with a BA in Jurisprudence and Political Science.

“I was finally given the chance to say goodbye to the university that shaped me in more ways than I ever could have imagined. The memories, great friendships and accomplishments will certainly last a lifetime. Thank you, President Cole, administration, faculty, and staff for staying committed to celebrating our commencement in-person as it will remain a memorable one. Montclair State you’ve given me my wings, now watch me fly!”

During the ceremonies, Cole told the graduates, “Now more than ever, the world needs bright, committed, well-prepared people who can take on the immense challenges we are facing. I have watched you with pride this year and have seen that you have not been brought down by this crisis.To the contrary, you have been strengthened by it, you have been toughened by it and you are readier than ever to go out and make your way in this world and fulfill your hopes and dreams.”

“In this remarkable moment in time, one thing is certain: The Class of 2020 will never be forgotten.”

Story by Staff Writer Mary Barr Mann with reporting from Marilyn Joyce Lehren

Commencement Photo Galleries

Feliciano School of Business

College of the Arts

College of Science and Mathematics

College of Humanities and Social Sciences

College of Education and Human Services

The Graduate School

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