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University News

Hats Off to the Class of 2023

Stories from one of the largest, most remarkable and resilient classes in Montclair State University history

Posted in: Homepage News, University

Three students in red caps and gowns pose for a photo on campus

Despite their unprecedented college careers, interrupted by the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns and uncertainty, some 5,386 Montclair State University students persisted – and triumphed.

Their ability to thrive in the face of challenges is a testament to their strength and determination. Many also overcame personal and academic obstacles and through it all, exemplified a love of learning and a desire to make a difference for their families, those who may follow and in the world.

When they walk across the stage today, they’ll savor the rewards for the sacrifices they and others made for their moment in the spotlight as graduates of Montclair. The University is holding three Commencement exercises at Prudential Center in Newark, which are also available via livestream in English and Spanish.

Here are just some of the thousands of stories of the Class of 2023.

Turning Tragedy into Triumph

Like many of his students, Newark teacher and single dad Desmond Durham knows what it’s like to grow up without a father. When he was 11, his father’s body was discovered in the Passaic River. Durham doesn’t know the details, only that his father, whom he’d met only a handful of times, was murdered.

“His absence from my life has motivated me to become the best father figure and role model to my son and all the young men I have encountered in my teaching career,” says Durham, a full-time educator at Newark’s Barringer High School who is graduating with a Master of Arts in Educational Leadership.

A Newark native, Durham is a participant in the Newark Montclair Leadership Pipeline Program, a rigorous program he was hesitant to join after 10 years of teaching. He wondered if he had the smarts and time for it, given his full-time jobs as a health and physical education teacher and father to Desmond Jr., now 9, and two part-time jobs, as an online health and phys-ed instructor and district-wide elementary basketball program coordinator.

Desmond Durham smiles for the camera
Newark educator Desmond Durham received the College of Education and Human Services’ 2023 Promising Leadership Award and is graduating with a master’s in Educational Leadership.

Recalling what drives him, he joined, not only completing the program but earning the College of Education and Human Services’ 2023 Promising Leadership Award. Durham will be sharing his story as a Commencement speaker at the College of Education and Human Services Commencement ceremony Tuesday evening.

“He’s my why,” Durham says of his son. “That’s my focus. That’s my drive. Also, I have students every day that look for me and my energy, so giving up on this opportunity to go back to school or possibly be the Commencement speaker, I felt like I was selling them short.”

Durham credits his mother, Mary, who despite a third-grade education, instilled in him a love of learning at a young age. “She is the strongest person I know and without her sacrifices and guidance, I wouldn’t be the man I am today,” he says.

Durham wants to motivate others by sharing his journey. “I hope my story empowers young men of color who look and sound like me to never give up on their dreams because no dream is too big, and nothing we desire for the future is out of our reach.”

Against All Odds

Alexia Pantoja
Alexia Pantoja takes a selfie on senior photo day.

Overcoming a brain aneurysm would be challenging for anyone. For Alexia Pantoja it was only one in a series of adversities she overcame to walk across the stage at Commencement. On Nov. 4, 2021, Pantoja was at her full-time job as a bank teller at a Verona Wells Fargo when she fainted.

“I just remember passing out,” says Pantoja, who at the time was also a full-time Psychology major. “I woke up in a hospital three days later. The whole right side of my body was basically paralyzed. I couldn’t really talk; I had cognitive speech problems. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t do anything with my right hand, and I’m right-hand dominant, so it was extremely challenging.”

She would later learn that “a blood clot ruptured, and they had to perform surgery in order to save my life.”

Pantoja missed a study abroad opportunity in Spain due to necessary therapies – physical, occupational, cognitive speech and aquatic. Last November, she lost a beloved uncle and traveled to Peru for his funeral. While there, she visited her maternal and paternal grandparents and promised that she would make them all proud. The goal that drove her to forge ahead, including taking 20 credit hours in her final semester, was having all four of her grandparents present at her Montclair Commencement. “I held onto that,” she says.

But shortly before graduation, her paternal grandfather died, and Pantoja returned from his funeral just four days before Commencement to prepare for her bittersweet graduation. Her maternal grandparents, along with her family members, are attending to celebrate her monumental achievement.

“I always had that motivation: I have to do this for my family. I have to do this for myself. But it was never easy,” says the 22-year-old first-generation graduate, who still has lingering effects and goes to therapy three times a week. “My biggest accomplishment this semester is just managing my therapy and getting all A’s. I’m super proud.”

Impact On and Off the Field

A man in a Montclair soccer uniform carries a child piggyback-style on the field.
Justin Goldberg celebrates a big win with Toby, a 7-year-old matched with the Red Hawks. (Photo by Vincent Golloto)

Justin Goldberg is a student athlete who made a huge impact both on and off the soccer field at Montclair. But that wasn’t clear as a freshman. “I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life other than I was pretty good with the ball at my feet, and I wanted to see where that went,” he says.

His soccer skills helped lead the Red Hawks to finish among the Top 25 Division III teams the past four years, but it was the leadership skills he gained while serving as team captain that led him to really figure out how to make a lasting impact.

“In my junior year, it hit me. What can I do with this platform?” Goldberg recalls. He approached his coaches with the question: “What can we do that’s bigger than the sport?”

Enter Toby, the energetic 7-year-old seen at home games, who has become something of a good luck charm for the team thanks to Team Impact, a nonprofit that matches children facing serious illness and disability with college sports teams.

Through Goldberg’s connections as a Business Administration major, they visited the NBA headquarters and rang the closing bell on Wall Street. Goldberg also visited Toby’s classroom on National Hemophilia Day to help Toby’s classmates better understand his disease.

“It started off as a desire to do something bigger than just winning games on the field. It turned into a remarkable experience, not just for Toby, but also for me,” Goldberg says.

Devoted Sisters

Two sisters, wearing yellow graduation stoles, face one another, holding hands and crying as they celebrate becoming nurses.
Melanie Carvajal, left, and Jazmin Carvajal, sisters who are graduating together, both earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, cry during the nurses’ traditional pinning ceremony. (Photo by John J. LaRosa)

As Melanie and Jazmin Carvajal hugged and cried during a pinning ceremony for nursing graduates in early May, the outpouring of emotions was a reminder of the resilience – one shared by many members of the Class of 2023 – that brought these sisters to graduate together.

Jazmin, 22, was inspired to study nursing because of the care she received when hospitalized while ill. “My nurses were an anchor for me. They were the ones who supported me, helped me with the programs, the medication I take. They were advocates for me.”

Her older sister Melanie, 23, started in the nursing program first. “But sadly, unexpected things happen,” she says. Those trials included failing and needing to repeat a nursing course in Behavioral Health.

“I’m proud of my sister,” Jazmin says. “A lot of people would have given up, but she still had the energy to finish.”

Melanie credits the support she received within the School of Nursing to helping her persevere. “I felt less alone,” she says, and the second time around – when she aced the class – “we had each other to push and be there for one another.”

Melanie was the first sister to begin crying as they draped the stoles and pins that mark the transition from student nurse to professional nurse over each other’s shoulders. “It was very emotional and I was trying not to show it,” Jazmin says. When she looked into her sister’s eyes, she too began to cry. “It’s the sister effect,” she adds.

Second Degree, First Commencement Walk

When Anthony Nogueira ’21 earned his Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, he didn’t get to participate in Commencement. He’d already enrolled in graduate school and had a class that same day. This time, he’s not only participating in the Feliciano School of Business Commencement exercises Tuesday morning to receive his Master of Business Administration, he’ll be a featured speaker. The Belleville, New Jersey, native is proud of his Brazilian heritage – his mother came to the U.S. from Brazil and worked factory jobs and as a babysitter to make a better life for her son.

“I come from a single-mom household, so I’m extremely proud of that and that me and my mom were able to achieve things like this,” Nogueria says. “She was there with me throughout every step of the journey.”

Nogueira worked full time and attended Montclair full time – for both undergraduate and graduate school – resulting in a debt-free graduation, no small feat.

A male student wearing a graduation gown and holding a red mortarboard poses before a large, bronze Red Hawk statue.
Anthony Nogueira is a proud Red Hawk, working his way through college and receiving two degrees from Montclair. (Photo by Adyla Inacio)

“I’m very proud that I was able to pay off school by myself,” Nogueira says. “I completely paid off my bachelor’s and my grad school working full time throughout college.”

Meet the Definition of ‘Motivated Student’

As the daughter of Syrian immigrants, Samantha Barkho says her parents influence her drive to succeed. “They work hard to provide a life for us,” she says. “My dad started out having nothing and worked his way up. That’s what I aspire to do as well and where I get a lot of my motivation.”

At Montclair, she was the very definition of “motivated student,” holding four internships (in public relations, brand marketing, social media and partnerships); serving as Marketing Club president and a University Fellow; being a member of the CEO mentorship program and Sigma Delta Tau sorority – and graduating a semester early, earning a degree in Business Administration with a concentration in Marketing and a minor in Business Relationships and Professional Selling.

She’s now working as a junior marketing associate at L’oreal on the global brand Maybelline DMI marketing team.

Graduate wearing a graduation cap and gown poses on a bench.
Samantha Barkho strikes a pose during a photo shoot on campus. (Photo by Grace Barkho)

What all those accomplishments don’t show is that Barkho achieved it all – and graduated a semester early – while struggling with autoimmune and other medical issues that kept her in and out doctors’ offices, plus multiple hospital trips.

The hardships, she says, “pushed me to be able to learn and handle anything.”

Service to Country, Self

Navy veteran John James Eakley, who earned a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry with a minor in Classics, overcame financial, personal and academic challenges to complete his degree.

Reared by a single mom who worked multiple jobs, the Eakleys moved yearly because they couldn’t afford stable rent. In order to afford college, Eakley went into the Navy after high school and served five years as a hospital corpsman.

Eakley says he came in last in his graduating high school class so he was shocked to be asked to speak at his college Commencement. “This opportunity is both unexpected and extraordinary,” he says. “Being a first-generation student, graduation holds tremendous significance for both me and my family. Graduating signifies a major accomplishment and a breakthrough in overcoming obstacles.”

A man in uniform stands between the U.S. and Navy flags.
Navy veteran John James Eakley wants to become a doctor.

In his speech to fellow graduates, he said: “I stand here before you as a five-year Navy veteran and future medical student, who was once told that I would never amount to anything. But I refused to let those labels and fallacies define me. Instead, I chose to embrace my unique path and to use my experiences to motivate and inspire others. Today, I urge you to do the same.”

An Academic Odyssey

A bearded graduate wearing a cap and gown smiles.
After almost 30 years, Richard Ellis returned to Montclair to finish what he started. The performance car shop owner earned a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies and a minor in English and Classics. (Photo by Narendra Singh)

When Richard Ellis first attended Montclair in the early ’90s, he worked as an auto mechanic to help pay for school. When the English major couldn’t get classes he wanted, he decided to take the proverbial semester off. As it turned out, the car lover’s avocation turned into his career, much to his college-educated parents’ chagrin. He’s built a successful performance car shop that employs others and has provided for his family.

“Time runs away with you sometimes,” he says, chuckling about his return to Montclair almost 30 years later. “It really bothered me that I never finished. It just gnawed at me. My father had passed, and I know it always bothered him that I never finished, so it was like, ‘Let me go get this done. Let me finish.’”

Montclair reignited the mechanic’s love for Homer’s The Odyssey, which he much prefers to watching TV or reading a tech manual. “I did not realize how much I missed school. I realized how much I love writing, how much I like reading normal things.” In fact, with a little finagling on the part of his advisor, he was able to take an “amazing” English course comparing The Odyssey and Circe to The Anthology of Rap that earned him enough credits for a minor in English.

Ellis is among the first cohort of nine students to successfully complete the Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program from University College, completing their degrees in December.

The 53-year-old Brick resident credits his wife with pushing him to complete his degree and his entire family encouraged him. “Even my 8-year-old was very supportive,” he says. “He’d be like, ‘Are you doing your homework, Dad? Okay, I’ll leave you alone.’”

His 19-year-old son, Alexander, “AJ,” recently helped his dad put on his mortarboard for some on-campus graduation photos. “I was happy for him,” says AJ, a freshman Biology major at Montclair, who was impressed by his father’s ability to focus after a full day at the shop. “It’s something that he talked about wanting to do, and I’m just proud that he finally got to do it.”

Ellis is now considering pursuing a master’s in literature.

Eight students in graduation gowns pose in front of a bronzed Red Hawk statue.
Ellis, not pictured here, is among the first cohort of students to successfully complete the Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies program from University College and participate in this year’s Commencement. Pictured, L to R, are: Nick Farriella, Charity Dolan, Chris Taite, Natalie Duran, Lauren Tiemers, Keith Ryan, Yoon Choi and Yeliz Bayram. (Photo by Narendra Singh)

Story by Staff Writers Sylvia A. Martinez and Marilyn Lehren.