As Red Hawk Day began, friends and first-year Montclair students Victoria Obaniyi, Maria Stathakopoulos, Nicole Martini and Hajeong Lim were among the first to pose for a group photo taken by a professional photographer in front of the giant bronze Red Hawk statue. They’d already bonded after meeting on campus during student orientation. Three of them are New Jersey natives and commuter students who say they are excited about their first school year at Montclair but perhaps the most enthusiastic was Lim, who hails from South Korea.
“I’m here as an exchange student, and I’m very excited to meet many people because here, it is very different from my home country,” she says, adding that she planned to join some clubs during the Student Involvement Fair.
The four are part of the record-breaking incoming class of 4,065, a diverse group that helped contribute to the largest total enrollment in Montclair’s 114-year history. The four friends also were among the students participating in Red Hawk Day, when the University welcomes first-year students with a fun, raucous, VIP-style event featuring deejays, dancing and details about clubs and organizations that students can join. This year’s festivities leveled up with the addition of a carnival filled with rides and games, where students easily won stuffed animals that will undoubtedly find homes in bedrooms – on campus and off.
The day kicked off with mingling in the Historic Quad, where students soon formed a circle; at the center, students showed off their dance skills to win a free Student Government Association T-shirt.
“It’s an exciting day for all of us,” Student Government Association President Richard Steiner-Otoo told the crowd before introducing President Jonathan Koppell, who welcomed the students.
“Are you excited? I’m excited for you. The entire campus has a totally different life when you guys show up and you’re ready and eager,” Koppell told the crowd. “I can’t tell you how much it pumps our hearts to be surrounded by all of you. This is the beginning of a great adventure.”
Koppell told students that while they will have fun, there will be some tough days. “I want you to take a minute to be proud of yourselves,” he told students, to their applause.
“How many of you thought a couple of years ago, I wonder what it’s going to be like to someday go to college?” he said, as students’ hands shot up in the air. “Now you’re here because of what you did. That’s really profound because when you prove to yourself that you can picture something for yourself in the future – and then through your own hard work – you can make it happen, that’s like a superpower that you have, and you need to remember that. That’s the key to getting through is believing in yourself.”
The president urged students to embrace the school’s carpe diem motto and make the most of their time and the resources at Montclair, to prepare themselves to serve a greater good and create the world in which they want to live. “While you’re having a good time, keep your eyes on that possibility. And if you do so, you’re going to find this is a magnificent time,” Koppell told them. “So, congratulations to all of you. I can’t wait to see what you do here at Montclair State University. We are a great university because of you and your fellow students, and we are going to do fantastic things together.”
In a red wave, the result of students wearing a variety of red Montclair T-shirts, the throng then moved to the Student Involvement Fair outside of Bohn and Blanton halls. There, returning students staffed information booths for their clubs and organizations, providing reasons new students should join and distributing a little swag.
Among them was Cole Vitelli, chair of finance for the student-run theater organization Players, a popular booth with students. “One thing that is so important is right in the title there, student-run. No professors, no management.” The Psychology and Pre-Medical Program major enthusiastically emphasized the inclusiveness of the organization with regard to majors, gender and sexual orientation, and shared that members produce one or two student performances, which are free, per month. “So, there’s tons of opportunity for students to really come together and create art, and I think that’s a really beautiful thing.”
Under a canvas canopy in the next booth, Kate Mora, vice president of SGA, was completely surrounded by students. “We also are essentially the voice of the student body,” Mora explains.
“We encourage everyone to get involved with SGA; we have a lot of amazing leadership opportunities for everyone,” she says, adding that they were seeking legislators. At the Video Production Club booth President Kelly Meagher, a film student, was pitching the club as one to join if newcomers are interested in learning and collaborating on the production of short films. The club is open to students from all disciplines, she says.
Litzy Ponce, a commuter student from Paterson, joined five clubs, including sports, health and culture. As a participant in the Summer Bridge program, Ponce lived in a residence hall and hopes to do so again in the future. “I love this campus. Today has been very welcoming and the overall enthusiasm of the students is contagious,” says the Biology major on a pre-med track.
Meanwhile, Koppell addressed faculty and staff from the stage at the Alexander Kasser Theater, where he spoke of the importance of building community, continuing the University’s mission as a public service institution and ongoing partnerships with community colleges and Bloomfield College. He highlighted the work and partnerships already underway in Newark with the Red Hawks Rising Teacher Academy program and in Paterson with the Paterson Coalition Against Substance Abuse program, as well as the community service work by Nursing students, the Center for Autism and Early Childhood Mental Health and the Center for Audiology.
“It’s really lovely to be your partner but more importantly, it’s a real privilege to be part of an institution that is poised to make a real difference in the world,” he said.
After the Student Involvement Fair, incoming students were treated to a carnival, barbecued hamburgers, hotdogs and all of the trimmings, ice cream and snow cones and more.
A sampling of those in the largest incoming class enjoying Red Hawk Day include:
- Transfer student Katherine Martinez, a home health nurse, who was on campus with her 4-year-old charge, Josh, who had parental permission to accompany her to Red Hawk Day. “I felt like it would be a nice experience for him,” particularly the carnival, she says. Martinez has practiced nursing for 12 years but feels burned out from dealing with the pandemic. “I’m changing my career,” says Martinez, who will be commuting from Kearny and majoring in Asian Studies, with a concentration in Japanese. “It’s always been a passion of mine, and I just want to pursue it. I feel like it’s a great opportunity now to do that in my life. If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that you know things change rapidly.”
- Aria Zachary, a Psychology major from Bridgewater, joined the Psychology Club during the Student Involvement Fair. She was excited for the carnival and about her residence hall room, which has a view of the Manhattan skyline.
- Jeb Zuna, a Computer Science major from Newark, says he was having fun and looking forward to enjoying the carnival with friends.
- Friends and Business Administration majors Israt Khan and Fatima Hossain, both of Paterson, and Ramisa Bakkar of Prospect Park were carrying stuffed purple horses won for them by friend Larry Wyatt at the Krazy Kans booth and all sporting temporary tattoos. Located at the center of the carnival, the tattoo booth proved popular with students who waited in two lines, some for close to an hour. “It’s a good day,” says Wyatt, who had tattoos on either side of his neck, one a pair of lips, making it look as though someone had kissed him, the other the word “love” in Japanese symbols.
- Azia Brown of Newark and friend Alyssa Balerio of Verona, both Public Health majors, said the wait for temporary tattoos was worth it. Brown, who shared that she has two “real tattoos” got a butterfly fairy on the inside of her wrist. Meanwhile, Balerio opted for a Hello Kitty on hers. “I enjoyed it [Red Hawk Day] more than I thought I would,” Balerio says, adding that she appreciated all of the effort that went into pulling off the event.
Among returning students enjoying the carnival was senior Music Performance major Maya Henry, who emerged from the Monkey Maze and slid down a circular slide, the only way down from the two-story attraction. She recalled her own Red Hawk Day but says “this was better.”