For the first time in several years, Montclair State University held Winter Commencement exercises, celebrating 1,839 graduates at Prudential Center in Newark on Monday, January 8.
The winter graduates have persevered through an unprecedented time in history, undaunted in pursuit of their dreams. They hail from 28 states and six countries and are dedicated to making the world a better place – through social action, public health, business, public service, education, research, the arts, sciences and the humanities.
“This is a great way to start 2024,” said President Jonathan Koppell. “No agita, no drama, just pure joy as we celebrate these graduates and their achievement. Today is a celebration of hard work. It’s a celebration of commitment. It’s a celebration of fortitude and resilience.”
Many Winter 2024 graduating seniors experienced the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and its lockdown either as first- or second-year college students or seniors in high school, but kept moving forward with their education. For all, the pandemic impacted their lives or educational journey in some way.
“You are here under extraordinary circumstances,” Koppell told the graduates. “We forget that your journey took an unexpected and massive detour with COVID – and yet, you persisted and you’ve made it to this day, and we honor you for that achievement.”
Koppell also recognized front-line workers, first responders and “those who got us through the darkest days. We’re here today because of our investments in research and science that set the stage for the development of vaccines and treatment. It wouldn’t make sense to gather you as a university and not recognize how the very work that you’re doing in the very work of higher education is crucial to our success as a society.”
He also asked graduates to stand and acknowledge those – “mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, friends, cousins, colleagues, classmates” – who supported them on their journey. “The last few years have underscored the extent to which all of our fates are intertwined, and we can’t think of any achievements as being individual. Each of us has achieved what we’ve achieved only with the assistance of others.”
During the ceremony, there were lots of selfies and tears of joy, lots of waves and laughter, particularly when students saw themselves on the jumbotron, and the pride that comes with recognizing major accomplishments and a feeling of anticipation for what the future holds. From the stands, proud parents waved at their grads and recorded or photographed their graduates in the sea of red below.
Among those showered in confetti at the ceremony’s end was first-generation graduate Osman Alcantara, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Accounting. Proudly sporting stoles declaring both his first-generation status and Honduran-born pride, a smiling Alcantara had a big cheering squad. He scored 18 tickets for family members, some traveling from Virginia and Maryland, to witness his moment.
“They couldn’t wait for my name to be announced and for me to walk,” he said. A posse of aunts, uncles, cousins and his grandmother joined his immediate family (mother, step-father and four siblings) at Commencement. He will be returning to Montclair to earn a master’s degree in Accounting. Meanwhile, he already has a job awaiting him at Withum, a public accounting firm, where he also interned, after he interns at Panasonic and successfully passes his CPA exam.
Another first-generation graduate, Julie Eljerou, also has a job upon graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration, with a concentration in Finance and a minor in Business Analytics.
The Presidential Scholar has accepted a job as a financial analyst at Bank of New York Mellon in its Jersey City offices. Both her graduation and employment are points of pride for Eljerou and her family. Born in Syria, she came to the United States at age 10 shortly after “the house across from my house got bombed in the middle of the night. The explosion shook the street, and we had shards of glass all over our bedroom.” Her family joined her grandfather and other family members in New Jersey after a 13-year wait for a visa. Once here, she took ESL classes in middle school and was soon in AP honors classes at Clifton High School. She graduated from Montclair after only three years, with 10 family members, including her immediate family, her grandmother and two aunts attending.
“We’re all very happy,” Eljerou said, “and we’re just ready to celebrate.”
In addition to the special recognition for students graduating with honors, high honors, highest honors and those hooded for earning their doctoral degrees, Vice President for Student Development and Campus Life Dawn Meza Soufleris recognized students for whom English is not their first language, students who are first in their families to attend college, students who worked full or part time while going to school, students who performed community service, students who overcame medical, mental or physical health challenges, and students who have served in the military or reserves. Two newly formed schools, the College for Education and Engaged Learning and the College for Community Health graduated their first cohorts.
Undergraduate student speaker Giraidy Gissel Vasquez, whose mother immigrated from the Dominican Republic, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Liberal Studies and told her fellow graduates that she began college 13 years ago and that while single motherhood delayed her education, she always wanted to finish what she started.
“Yes, life took me on a different route than I had initially envisioned, but it brought me here, to this moment,” she said. “Because it’s not about where you start. It’s about the journey, the growth, the people you meet along the way. So, as we celebrate this incredible achievement, let’s remember that this is just the beginning.”
The Graduate School speaker, Dan Barcia, a first-generation student who earned his master’s in Educational Leadership, shared with his fellow graduates that he often suffers from imposter syndrome.
“Despite being born here, I have constantly grappled with not fully belonging,” said Barcia, who works as a Dean of Students within the Newark Public Schools district.
“My roots trace back to my mother’s resilient journey from Argentina to claim American citizenship, a debt I strive to settle for those who never reached the destination of their treacherous journey,” Barcia said. “I share this not for pity but to connect, assuring you that in your struggles, you are not alone.”
He urged the graduates to challenge societal norms and change the world.
“Never falter in your efforts to make this world a place we all deserve to belong to,” he said. “Consider this a call to action, a heartfelt plea to keep fighting for a better world – for all of us.”
Graduate Patricia Sigmon earned a master’s in Sustainability Science four decades after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science. She returned to school after successfully putting three children through college and building and selling a hugely successful software company. “I never thought ‘retire’ – that word didn’t enter my mind,” she said. “I had always wanted to go away to college the way I let my children go away to college, because I went part time at night.”
Given her success as an entrepreneur, Sigmon ended up also teaching at Montclair; she’s an adjunct professor at the Feliciano School of Business and at Stevens Institute of Technology, where she taught entrepreneurship, management and marketing courses – all while earning her master’s degree in one calendar year. “It was tough,” she said, adding that as an entrepreneur “I’m used to working full time-plus, so it wasn’t worse than that.”
As for what she’ll do next, she said she’s still “in discovery mode.”
Before sending students off with an uplifting message and a challenge, President Koppell took a moment to acknowledge Biology Professor Sandra Adams, who served as Commencement Grand Marshal and will be retiring at the end of January after more than two decades at Montclair.
He noted the diversity of the class and circuitous route many graduates took to graduation day and asked them to drown out naysayers and negativity about the state of the world.
“Some of you had to overcome great hardship, individual challenges, family challenges, we’ve already talked about COVID, which was a curveball for all of us. So when people say it can’t be done, we’re all doomed, think about your own journey,” he said. “You didn’t accomplish anything because you believed you were doomed. You accomplished because you were positive that…you could overcome anything that was put in your path. If we don’t lose confidence, if we don’t lose the optimism that tomorrow can be better than today, we can overcome any challenge.
“Show people what is possible,” he said, adding, “This is a room filled with people who could not better represent the full diversity of our population, every race, every religion, every national origin is represented in our graduates and those celebrating them. Today, this incredible diversity of humanity is united in pride for our loved ones and pride in the fulfillment of human potential…I hope that the tools you acquired at Montclair State University are useful as you answer that challenge.”
Visit our News Center to read profiles of some Montclair graduates including a Public Health graduate who persevered through paralysis to earn her degree, a Sports Communications graduate who published a book while still a student and a Musical Theatre graduate who made his Broadway debut during his final semester at Montclair.