Even gathering rain clouds couldn’t dampen the celebratory mood at MetLife Stadium on Friday, May 20, as Montclair State University’s Class of 2022 came together in one large combined outdoor ceremony to recognize their achievements – and perseverance – through unprecedented times.
MetLife Stadium, the largest venue ever for Commencement, allowed for both undergraduate and graduate students to gather and enough space for unlimited numbers of guests to safely attend, something University President Jonathan Koppell felt was important.
Presiding over his first Montclair Commencement, Koppell told the graduates that it’s easy to give in to fear and doubt in face of the world’s problems, but that the Class of 2022 overcame challenges and never let fear or doubt deter them from their goals. He encouraged the graduates to use that energy and optimism to be agents of change.
“Each of you are here because you believed it was possible to do so. You were fundamentally optimistic about the future and that got you to this day,” he told the Class of 2022, which numbers more than 5,300. “You did not accept that things are impossible because they are difficult. Do not accept that the world cannot be a better place. It can, and I believe you are the key to making it so.”
Speakers throughout the ceremony noted the graduates’ determination and dedication, strength and resolve.
“I’d like to say that all of our hard work is finally done but that’s not true because we all have a purpose yet to be fulfilled,” said graduate student speaker Danielle McDonald, who earned her Master of Arts degree in Law and Governance.
“To me, purpose is your essence of being,” said McDonald, whose home is in the Bahamas. “It is unique to every individual but also requires you to be intentional in everything you do. Purpose is not a destination. Rather, it is a journey where your struggles can be turned into power and joy.”
This year’s Commencement combined graduate and undergraduate ceremonies to “underscore what this University is: a living, breathing monument to learning, not just learning on an individual basis, but on a collective basis,” Koppell said. The University anticipated awarding 3,804 bachelor’s, 1,521 master’s and 43 doctoral degrees.
Seated among University leaders on the commencement stage, Guillermo Estrada, the Student Government Association treasurer, was emblematic of the many graduates who were the first in their families to receive degrees. The MetLife stage plays hosts to major concerts, but at Commencement it was Estrada who felt like a rock star.
“I have all my little cousins coming up, and they’re like, ‘I want to be like him. I want to go to school, I want to graduate and I want to be successful.’ Now I’m the one setting the example, the standard for my whole family,” Estrada reflected prior to the ceremony. He earned a BS in Public Health and will move to Louisiana this summer to begin an MBA program.
Seated among the rows of graduating Red Hawks on the football field was Radwa Elzokm, who in three years completed degree requirements for two majors, Political Science and Jurisprudence, Law and Society and a minor in Global Security and Diplomacy by taking classes year-round with summer and winter sessions. She’s been accepted into Montclair’s Law and Governance graduate program for fall 2022 and recently completed a U.S. Senate internship.
“Montclair gave me the starting step for having a successful career,” she said. “It allowed me to gain experience while learning. Being a first-generation college student, Montclair allowed me to catch up with my peers,” said Elzokm, who immigrated to America from Egypt. “The inclusivity at Montclair helped me access different perspectives, it allowed me to be knowledgeable on different cultures.”
Undergraduate student speaker Ann Marie Barrera, a grandmother receiving her BS in Business Administration with a concentration in International Business, exemplified the graduates who have earned degrees later in life. Barrera was a teen mom and a widow at just 25 years old. “I have had my fair share of challenges. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree was always a goal of mine, but for a long time, it was just that. A goal,” she said.
“But it doesn’t matter how long it takes,” Barrera, 46, reflected prior to the ceremony. As a single mom, her focus was on taking care of her three children (daughter Heather Renee Teran graduated from Montclair last year), her ailing mother (who died before seeing Barrera finish her degree) and building a career in export marketing. “At some point, I decided now is my chance to work on myself. That’s my message to the graduating class. If you have a goal, keep your eye on that because it is obtainable. You just have to want it bad enough.”
Noting the complex time of their college experience, graduates shared how they have been meeting the moment, including the vaccine initiative against Covid-19, raising their voices for social justice or in defending democracy.
“It’s like we’re living in the pages of a history book,” says Dawsen Wimer, who earned a BA in Justice Studies and is a member of the New Jersey National Guard.
In video salutes to classmates, graduates selected as “Outstanding Students” by each of the University’s schools and colleges, said opportunities to do meaningful work through social action, public service, education, research, the arts, sciences and the humanities enhanced their time at Montclair.
Representing the College of Education and Human Services, Vanessa Garcia noted how educators “have persevered through these challenging times, teaching through a pandemic while working toward our advanced degrees and being there for our students and families.”
In 114 years, Montclair has granted 177,689 degrees. There were just 45 students in the first graduating class, more than 5,300 in the Class of 2022, nearly the same number of graduates from the combined classes of 1970, 1971 and 1972, some of whom joined the celebration at MetLife to mark their 50th-plus anniversary.
“Once a Red Hawk, always a Red Hawk,” observed Garcia. Earning a master’s in Educational Leadership, she was attending her third Montclair Commencement after previously receiving a bachelor’s and first master’s degree. “But this time, it’s been different.”
As president of a leading public-serving university, Koppell emphasized a “collective commitment to build a better world and to do it together.”
“Thank you for the optimism that charges me every day and makes me believe in a better future than today,” he told the graduates. “You are what we need, and we are counting on you to continue with the energy, resourcefulness and commitment you have demonstrated today.”
The Class of 2022 Celebrates at MetLife Stadium
See the full Commencement 2022 Photo Gallery here.