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University News

A Year Like No Other

Bidding goodbye to 2020 with a look back on this unprecedented year

Posted in: University

College Hall in snow

What started as a typical year soon turned into one like no other. Along with the rest of the world, the University had to overcome the challenges posed by COVID-19. It found new ways to teach, conduct research and serve students as safely as possible. From pivoting to a fully online experience in the spring to returning to campus in the fall with a mix of in-person, hybrid and online courses, the University community rallied together to get through it. There were many bright spots along the way, including advocating for social justice, winning a record level of research funding, completing the most ambitious fundraising goal in University history, and discovering creative ways to teach and learn safely. Here’s a look back at the year that was.

January Graduate Commencement

NJ Attorney General Gurbir Grewal at commencement podium

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal addressed the 655 students who graduated with master’s and doctoral degrees in January. “Try to enjoy the journey and know that you will find your calling. But along the way … I ask that you always look to find ways to make that journey easier for others.”

Quints Commit

quintuplets jumping outside high school
quints wearing masks on campus in fall

All five of the Povolo quintuplets of Totowa, New Jersey, accepted Montclair State University’s offer of a Presidential Scholarship for each of the high-achieving students – Victoria, Masha, Ashley, Michael and Marcus. They began their college journey together in the fall.

Notable Visitors – Past and (Virtually) Present

NJ First Lady Tammy Murphy at podium

The University welcomed New Jersey First Lady Tammy Murphy in January to announce a partnership for improving maternal health. U.S. Representative Mikie Sherrill (NJ-11) visited three times: for a press conference about the Census in February, to promote the free flu shot clinic in October and to see Passaic County’s COVID testing site in Lot 60 in December. Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow and Bret Michaels offered video congratulations to School of Communication and Media graduates in May, and The New York Times Chief White House correspondent Peter Baker and Politico Founder and Editor Susan Glasser (virtually) visited to discuss politics prior to the election.

The Pivot to Online

newspaper headline: Gov. Murphy declares state of emergency in New Jersey

When New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency to help slow the spread of coronavirus in March, the University extended spring break and moved all classes online for the remainder of the semester and into the summer.

Front Line Response

Students in 3D printing lab constructing face masks

During the lockdown in the spring, the University’s essential workers stayed on campus preparing meals, cleaning, and providing safety and care to those students who needed to remain, garnering national news coverage. Professors in Public Health, Economics, Marketing and more were called upon to help others understand the epidemic and its impacts through media interviews. Students in disciplines such as Nursing found themselves on the front lines. And the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation’s MIX Lab (pictured) led an innovative effort that ultimately produced more than 30,000 face shields for health-care workers.

A Record Breaking Year for Grants

Gerry Costa in pre-school classroom

Montclair State faculty attracted a record-breaking $22.4 million in external grant funding for fiscal year 2020, including $8 million from the U.S. Department of Education to promote the inclusion of children with disabilities into Pre-K through 12th grade general-education classrooms in New Jersey public schools, overseen by Gerard Costa, director of the University’s Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health. Meanwhile FY 2021 is off to a fast start with a five-year $3.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health awarded in September to Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor David Rotella and a team or researchers from multiple universities to evaluate an enzyme related to memory loss.

Justice for All

This summer, the country again began to grapple with its long history of inequality and police brutality. As marchers took to the streets to demand change, the University community came together to support one another and its commitment to social justice and equality. “Black Lives Matter,” said President Susan A. Cole in a video message. “And we need to keep teaching that message until more and more and more people really understand it.”

Grads Shine

student walks across stage during undergraduate commencement ceremony
student at graduation wearing face mask and mortarboard decorated with coronavirus molecules

Montclair State University graduates celebrated a delayed but much anticipated Commencement over 21 small, in-person ceremonies in July at Sprague Field. “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,” says Stephanie Pitera, who earned a master’s in Public and Organizational Relations.

Royals Wed

alumni wed on the fifty-yard-line of the football field

The last time Janet (Jaramillo) Fenner ’93 and Gregory Dabice ’93 shared the spotlight on the 50-yard line they were crowned Montclair State’s Homecoming queen and king in 1992. In a fairy-tale ending more than 27 years later, their reunion on Sprague Field on August 1, included a kiss and wedding vows — and attracted national and international media attention, including from USA Today and the UK’s Daily Mail.

Carpool Theater

pop-up drive in theater on campus

In June, the University hosted the Montclair Film Carpool Theater in Lot 60. “We’re so happy to be welcoming our community back to the movies,” said Montclair Film Executive Director Tom Hall.

Red Hawks Return

student at table with laptop with a banner on the wall behind her reading Welcome Back, Students

After pivoting to fully remote learning in the spring, the campus came back to life with the guidance of the 70-page Red Hawk Restart plan, rooted in CDC and state protocols. Students took courses online, in person and in a hybrid format, participated in safe, socially distanced activities and some 3,200 students lived in the residence halls. Many professors took their classes outdoors when weather permitted, including musical ensembles that used the amphitheatre and the Red Hawk Parking deck for rehearsals and performances. “Even getting just the slightest bit of a college experience, I’m very happy to be here and meet new people,” said freshman Julia Ciesielsk, an Acting major from Massachusetts.

Testing and Reporting

Student has her nose swabbed by a University Health Center worker

In response to the pandemic, the University Health Center logs all known cases of COVID-19 among students, staff and faculty on its COVID Dashboard. The Health Center collaborates on contact tracing with local health departments, and hundreds of staff and students are regularly tested. The University also implemented Hawk Check, a daily screening assessment tool required for use by everyone before visiting campus to help reduce the risk of viral spread.

Soar Campaign Soars

dancer leaping in front of the words "Philanthropy in Practice"

The University concluded the largest fundraising campaign in its history in June. More than 20,000 alumni, friends, and corporate and foundation donors contributed nearly $82 million to Soar: The Campaign for Montclair State to fund scholarships, research and academic programs, and enhance the campus. “These funds are having a direct and lasting impact, strengthening every aspect of a Montclair State education,” says Vice President for Development Colleen Coppla.

Awards and Recognition

photo collage of our award-winning faculty

Professor of Earth and Environmental Studies Yang Deng was named University Distinguished Scholar for the 2020-21 academic year. Patricia A. Matthew, associate professor of English, was named one of nine scholars to participate in the University at Buffalo Center for Diversity Innovation’s new Distinguished Visiting Scholar program. Cali School Artist-in-Residence and clarinetist Anthony McGill received the coveted Avery Fisher Prize. And School of Communication and Media News Producer Steve McCarthy won an Emmy for the HBO documentary Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists.

Alumni Impress

Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez ’84

Alumni continued to lead the way to a better future. Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez ’84 became the first Hispanic to lead the 1.3 million Catholics of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Julia Dondero ’14 worked to create an at-home self-collection kit for LabCorp’s COVID-19 test. New Jersey State Trooper Corey Beczo ’15 helped talk a teen down from an overpass in Camden. Howell Township Police Officer Nick Volpe ’19 pulled a man from a burning car. Many marked  milestones, including award-winning educator Leonard Blessing ’50, ’51 MA, who turned 100 in October and Bisa Butler ’05 MAT, who opened her first solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.


Student holding up her homecoming tee-shirt after registering

More than 1,000 alumni and friends and family participated in Homecoming 2020, which featured a virtual trip to the Galapagos, webinars with faculty and a “stay-at-homecoming” tailgate, when the annual event moved online. On campus, students participated in socially distant spirit activities to mark the occasion.

College Hall Reopens

After more than three years of renovation, Montclair State’s iconic, original home reopened in fall 2020 as a one-stop shop for students with a brand new look. Meanwhile, the story of a 112-year-old message in a bottle found during construction continued to unearth descendants of the original bricklayers who left the message.

Elevate Brand Launch

This fall, the University introduced Elevate, a new institutional brand identity that reflects how Montclair State helps students to set their sights high and rise to meet their full potential. Expect to see more of the new branding around campus and in the media in 2021.

Bright Lights, Big Parking Garage

Screenshot of MSU singers appearing on the Kelly Clarkson Show via videoconference

After being discovered by a producer while singing in the Red Hawk Deck and then featured on both The Today Show and CBS Evening News in September, the University Singers performed for millions of viewers on The Kelly Clarkson Show on October 29. Clarkson interviewed John J. Cali School of Music Director Anthony Mazzocchi, flanked by Choral Director Heather Buchanan and Accompanist Steven Ryan.

President Cole and Vice President Pennington Announce Retirements

Dr.Cole in School of Communications Lobby
Dr. Pennington in the Student Center's Third Floor Lounge

President Susan A. Cole announced she will retire in July 2021, after leading the University through remarkable growth and transformation over 23 years. Karen L. Pennington, who has aided Cole in that work as vice president for Student Development and Campus Life will retire on January 31. The University will celebrate their legacies as they pass the torch in 2021.

Watch our End of Year Video here.