On Sunday, Montclair State wrapped up the last of its 16 Commencement ceremonies celebrating the achievements of the members of the Class of 2021. It also marked the last Commencement ceremony that President Susan A. Cole would preside over, bringing the number to 90,342 degrees the University has conferred during her 23-year tenure.
In a show of respect on what was her 175th and final Commencement ceremony, employees lined Sprague Field as Cole walked off, applauding her after she was presented a bouquet of flowers.
Among those thousands of degrees conferred, 5,044 were earned by graduates in 2020-2021 whose resilience and determination not to let a pandemic get in their way of achieving their goals was celebrated in the course of the last week. The stories from those ceremonies provide a snapshot into the love and hope that propelled the graduates to earn those degrees and take that walk across the stage.
Ready to Take on a Complex World
Student speaker Allison Conlon, an Applied Math and Statistics graduate, told her fellow College of Science and Mathematics grads the story of how her mother, Ita Conlon, who earned a master’s degree in Accounting in 1998 from Montclair State, delivered her final term paper on her way to deliver Allison.
“She had barely hit print before my dad drove her to the hospital,” said Conlon.
Today, Conlon says, Red Hawk graduates met and overcame even greater challenges.
“We are one of the strongest graduating classes in the history of Montclair State. We took all of our advanced math and science courses through computer screens – most students avoid our challenging classes even when they are taught in person, so think about how much we must have excelled and learned by doing it online. We demonstrated that we are adaptable and dependable no matter the circumstances.”
Success, Despite COVID-19 Challenges
“I think we can all admit this year has been exceptionally hard for everyone,” said Amanda Leon, the student speaker for the College of Education and Human Services. “Either you had COVID, lost your job, a person whom you love, or questioned if life will ever go back to normal. It was as if the world stopped, all while spinning out of control.”
But for this Class of 2021, “even in the midst of a pandemic, we all made the decision to not let it stop us from getting to where we are today,” said Leon, who graduated with a degree in Family Science and Human Development, with a concentration in Families, Children and School Settings, and teacher certification for Grades K-6.
Caps Off to the Graduates
Creative caps make great fashion statements, and Khadijah Haraksin of Pleasantville, New Jersey, fashioned her mortarboard to sum up what she accomplished with a well-known phrase by the late rapper Nipsey Hussle – “The game is gonna test you, never fold. Stay ten toes down.”
Despite a difficult path, Haraksin says she refused to fold, staying as the quote inspired, “ten toes down,” focused and determined to overcome personal setbacks and rebounding from poor grades to the dean’s list.
“I hit rock bottom,” she recalls, “and I refused to get any lower than that. I just felt it wasn’t me and I said to myself, ‘No, this is not going to work.’”
Accepting the help of advisors in the Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) who pointed her in the direction of academic and emotional support, Haraksin turned her college experience around, earning her degree in Psychology and a minor in Child Advocacy.
“I’m grateful for that because I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for everything that they put me in front of,” Haraksin says. Her plans include graduate school and a career in mental health and trauma.
Nationally, only about 9% of Americans have earned a master’s degree, and fewer than 2% have earned a doctoral degree. Arielle Flores hopes to attain them both.
Flores earned the MA in Public and Organizational Relations, the first in her family to go to college and now attain an advanced degree. “My success is their success,” she says. “I wanted to be the one who becomes the trailblazer for my family and be that legacy bearer. I’m glad I continued; I grew professionally, academically, socially and emotionally. Perhaps, just maybe sometime in the future, I will change the outlook of my family and my identity, by being a Latinx woman with a PhD.”
Katherine Freedman says she was inspired by Montclair State alumni as she pursued her master’s. “I met alumni who went through this program (MA in Public and Organizational Relations) while pregnant, working full time and taking a class part time. They all went on to have fulfilling and diverse careers. Their stories helped push me to the finish line.”
Faith, Leadership and Confetti
In a photo that captured the spirit of Commencement, Caroline Gutierrez shoots confetti from atop the Red Hawk statue in celebration of her BA in Psychology – a degree she earned in just three years. She’s one of the first of the University’s Presidential Scholars to graduate. “I will forever treasure every moment I had at Montclair, and will always carry all I have learned here – in and outside of the classroom – with me,” she says.
Gutierrez was guided by her faith and spirituality on campus, and served as a University Fellow, providing support, guidance and mentoring to first-year students. “I could not be more excited for the future, but Montclair has been the most beautiful checkpoint I have ever known.”
Climb Every Mountain
“I don’t know about you, but I have parents who will tell you about how they climbed mountains and swam across the ocean to get to school,” said student speaker Joud Sharaf, BS in Biology, at the College of Science and Mathematics Commencement. “But fellow graduates, let’s agree on this: We’ll tell our kids that we survived the corona apocalypse marked by a toilet paper shortage and Wi-Fi becoming our best friend.”
Sharaf offered some advice: “I may be up here speaking right now but little did you know, there was a time that going to college was inconceivable in my mind. I was that kid in high school that teachers did not see a future for. What kept me going was realizing that if I let it, my life was just going to pass me by. … Even though as scientists we are in the field of solving problems, the bumps in the road aren’t there for us to solve, rather they are there to shape us to become our best selves.”
Leaning in to Obstacles
“Growing up as an immigrant in this country, I spent the better part of my childhood getting accustomed to the cultural changes around me,” student speaker Rayane Yamout, BA in Public Relations with a minor in Business, told her fellow College of the Arts graduates.
“I began looking at my difficult times as not ‘why is this happening to me’ but rather ‘this is happening for me.’ So many of us go through life accepting the outcome that is given to us, but what if we were to lean into our obstacles and reach for another way forward? I am a strong individual today because of my resilience, grit and determination to succeed. I am proud to be an immigrant as it is a big part of my identity.” Yamout plans to continue her studies in the MA in Public and Organizational Relations program.
Putting the Puzzle Together
Alexandra Torebka likened pursuing her degree to putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
“Out of nowhere, it was as if someone knocked a large part of the puzzle to the ground” when the pandemic struck, said Torebka, who earned a degree in Family Science and Human Development with a concentration in Families, Children and School Settings, and teacher certification for grades K-6.
“For some of us, reorganizing our puzzle meant overcoming sickness, loneliness and devastating loss,” she said as the student speaker at the Commencement ceremony for the College of Education and Human Services.
“I had to remind myself many times that rebuilding my puzzle wouldn’t be an easy feat, but with my support team of professors, mentors, colleagues, friends and most importantly, my parents, I was going to accomplish something much greater than any college degree, or puzzle, but I was going to learn how to appreciate my present and future obstacles and not let them control my journey.”
Deeper Experience Serving Others
Daniel Norvil put in 300 hours of service each year during his four years at Montclair State, including being part of the Bonner Leader program and mentoring middle school students from the nearby community. He seized opportunities on campus, joined the track team and Student Government Association, and attended the national Bonner Congress Convention. His experiences led him to find his voice on social justice issues.
But while growing up in East Orange, New Jersey, going to college, let alone graduating in four years with a degree in Public Relations, wasn’t something he could imagine.
“Growing up, I heard it was too hard to accomplish,” he says. “It gets in your head a little bit. I never would have gotten this far without the people surrounding me who keep my head straight.”
That support network includes EOF, where he was a peer leader and learned what he was capable of, his strengths and how to improve – and where he found a family after his mother passed away during his sophomore year. “That’s when I knew EOF was not just a support program but a family to me,” Norvil says.
His mother, Anne Marie Norvil, inspired a strong work ethnic and motivated Norvil to graduate, to complete the degree she started but wasn’t able to finish. This summer, he heads to California for a six-week public relations internship with plans to begin Montclair State’s master’s program in Public and Organizational Relations.
Father, Daughter Graduate Together
It’s not easy to work a full-time job, raise a family and go to school “off and on for years,” but Lavone Broxton, motivated by his wife and daughters, finally earned his undergraduate degree. His walk across the Commencement stage was made even sweeter as he shared graduation day with his daughter, Tiiera Broxton.
“Congratulations Dad! You are a walking example that age is nothing but a number and you can achieve any goal you put your mind to,” Tiiera Broxton said.
Both father and daughter earned degrees in Sociology and their home in Newark, New Jersey, is now brimming with Red Hawk Pride: Lavone’s spouse and Tiiera’s mother, Rhonda Robinson-Broxton, earned two graduate degrees at Montclair State. Two older daughters, Siiera and Kiiera, also hold master’s degrees from other institutions.
“I didn’t want to be the only person in a family who didn’t go to school,” said Lavone Broxton, associate director of Postal and Warehouse Services at Montclair State, who took advantage of the University’s employee tuition waiver program to finish up what he started in 2007. “Once I saw that I could have the opportunity to graduate at the same time as Tiiera, that was the push that inspired me.” Read more about the Broxtons in our News Center.
A Second Family
Jaime Bock whooped up the crowd at the School of Nursing’s June 10 Commencement, leading a round of applause for Montclair State’s “inaugural Pre-Licensure BSN Class of 2021!”
“When I started nursing school, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into,” Bock said. “If I had to sum up nursing school in three words I would say: stress, stress, and more stress. … Between the never-ending exams and the obscene amount of Red Bull and coffee, it was hard to differentiate the etiology of our heart palpitations.”
“I did not expect to be given a second family.”
“We’ve seen each other at our worst and celebrated at our best. We understood each other, when it felt like nobody else did. We laughed, we cried, we panicked. Half the time I could not tell if we were laughing or crying. It was truly therapeutic. We never gave up; we uplifted, supported and learned from each other. But most importantly, we grew together.”
“I would not be standing here if it wasn’t for you all.”
Not All Superheros Wear Capes
Theresa Migliaccio, a mother of five who has also been a high-risk pregnancy nurse for 23 years, knows a thing or two about stress. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree on the post-licensure track while dealing with the pandemic personally and professionally.
“This past year has given us challenges that we could have never imagined,” Migliaccio told her fellow School of Nursing graduates. “The endless days fighting a disease that we knew nothing about and the feeling of hopelessness as we watched so many lives pass away.”
“We were considered heroes but in our hearts, we were just who we always are – nurses,” said Migliaccio. “We did what we always do – we did more. Sitting with the patient who was alone or calling a family from an iPad or comforting family members over the phone. There was no time but we made it.”
The light at the end of the tunnel came with vaccinations: “Being a part of the mass vaccination effort and vaccinating homebound patients was an experience that I will forever be grateful for. For the first time in a long time, I felt like a superhero.”
Climbing the Ladder
Michele Ansbacher, recipient of the Feliciano School of Business Distinguished Alumna Award, told graduates that, like many of them, “I came from humble beginnings. Though they didn’t go to college, my parents were very proud of their children who did. Wanting more helped fuel my success.”
Having risen to the ranks to a corporate vice president position, Ansbacher said the Class of 2021 has more than enough qualifications to make it. “You are more than equipped to succeed with your MSU education. You have survived the COVID upheaval and will take that quality of resiliency with you.”
A Degree, but First a Proposal
Dylan White earned his degree in Business Administration, a monumental day recognizing his efforts to balance work and school. “I was working full time and Montclair State helped me figure out a class schedule that fit my hours and educational requirements. My path wasn’t one of an average student but the University helped me juggle my busy lifestyle. I wouldn’t change a thing about my college experience.”
The highlight of his time on campus may have come a few months earlier. With the campus covered in snow, he proposed marriage to Ariana Leyton ’17, ’18 MS. She said, “Yes.”
Changing the World
When she landed at JFK Airport in 1986 as a “very excited, very scared 17 year old” bound for Montclair State, Wamwari Waichungo had the inspiring example of her parents to ground her.
Her late mother Charity Waichungo was in the first class of native African girls to go to high school in Kenya in 1951, ultimately earning her PhD and becoming principal of a girl’s high school in the village where she was born, while her father Asaph Waichungo was the first in his family to attend high school before traveling to the U.S. for a university education.
“Today, three decades later, a PhD in Food Science and 20+ years working in the food and beverage industry, I can confirm that the education and guidance that I received here at Montclair State was instrumental to my career success,” said Waichungo, as she accepted the College of Education and Human Services’ Distinguished Alumna Award. A CEHS Advisory Board member, Waichungo is vice president for Global Safety Assessments and Regulatory Affairs at SCJohnson.
“Both my mother and my father set an example that I have followed. In the words of the late Nelson Mandela, ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’”
University Honors Benefactor
The multiple smaller ceremonies celebrated graduates in traditional style, with the tossing of caps, speakers and an honorary degree awarded to entrepreneur Mimi Turco Feliciano. It was a milestone long delayed for Feliciano who did not complete her bachelor’s degree when she attended Montclair State decades ago.
As a first generation student, Feliciano said two things dominated her thinking while a student: “I felt like I wasn’t good enough and that I never had enough money.” Still, she credits the University with providing the foundation for her successful career, and she has given back in many ways, including funding the Mimi and Edwin Feliciano School of Business, the Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation, and The Global Center on Human Trafficking.
A Final Commencement
“I have marveled at your tenacity and resilience in the face of adversity, and I can tell you that your University could not be prouder of you and what you have accomplished,” said President Susan A. Cole, who spoke at each of the ceremonies, ending her own remarkable tenure leading Montclair State.
“So, today, in a way, I graduate with you. For the last 23 years, it has been my honor to contribute my efforts to building the University that would enable students like you to earn their degrees, walk across this stage and then proceed to realize their dreams. Today, it is my privilege to stand here with you,” she said.
… “We shall leave this place together.”
See the full commencement photo galleries at the links below.