New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis congratulated the Class of 2020 for embracing the challenge and completing their degrees while facing a global pandemic during her keynote address in William Paterson University’s Virtual Commencement ceremony on May 26. More than 2,400 doctoral, master’s, and bachelor’s degrees were awarded.
“I know the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we are celebrating your accomplishments today,” she said. “But that must not overshadow your extraordinary achievements over the course of your academic career. We must make it a point to celebrate your drive to overcome tremendous odds to make it to graduation. Completing your degree is no small feat, especially in the face of a global pandemic that significantly impacted your plans for studying abroad, finishing your athletic seasons, interning someplace that may have closed, and walking across the graduation stage today.”
The graduates, who ranged in age from 19 to 67, hailed from 15 states and 30 countries, and included 37 veterans and active service members. About thirty percent are the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree, and the majority of students worked while earning their degrees.
More than 500 students graduated with Latin honors of summa sum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude for achieving consistently high, or perfect, grade point averages during their studies at the University. In addition, the Class of 2020 included the first graduates of the University’s doctoral degree in clinical psychology; master of science degrees in applied business analytics, materials chemistry, and sales leadership; and bachelor of arts degree in disability studies.
Secretary Smith Ellis noted that many of the students earning their degrees were first-generation college students who juggled coursework with employment, childcare, and other responsibilities, while others dealt directly with the COVID-19 pandemic as front-line workers, volunteers, parents homeschooling their children, or as caretakers for ill family members.
“During an unprecedented time in our nation’s history, you did not let a global pandemic stand in the way of the pursuit of your dreams,” she added. “Instead, you embraced the challenges presented and triumphed. I am in awe of you not only as college graduates but as heroes who have made our state a better place during a time of uncertainty and fear.”
William Paterson University President Richard J. Helldobler expressed similar sentiments in his remarks. “What our nation and the Class of 2020 is going through has certainly disrupted the final months of your William Paterson experience and – for now – how we celebrate it,” he said, reiterating the University’s plans to also hold an in-person ceremony. “But, ultimately, those extra, unexpected hurdles that you all crossed to get to this day will only enhance its importance and the value of the William Paterson degree that you have earned.”
Board of Trustees Chair Michael Seeve also spoke to the graduates, adding his congratulations. “Through your hard work and determination, you have earned something special. Your William Paterson degree will prove its value more and more over time, “ he said. “It is the result of everything you have invested in it. And it will pay you back again and again, through better career prospects, a supportive network of fellow alumni and mentors, and the self-knowledge that make education its own reward.
Undergraduate student speaker Qynn Pascual, a May 2020 graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and English, magna cum laude, described the bittersweet emotions of graduating during the global pandemic. “Like many of you, I have spent the last few months reflecting, not realizing that the last time I was on campus would, in fact, be my last time as a student,” she said. “I look back to the last place I dozed off studying, the last time I cried in the library, and the last time I had to race for a parking spot.”
She also spoke about the resiliency shown by the graduates as they finished their degrees at home. “We continued to student-teach without a classroom, completed lab reports without tangible research, and managed to maintain a steady work ethic while taking care of our entire families at home. We have completed our fieldwork away from the field. And to those of us who could not stay at home, you have become our heroes. For now, I celebrate with you all from a distance.”
Bryan Kopko ’18, MBA ’20, who graduated in January, gave the graduate student address. He talked about how the current situation has placed life in perspective. “Frequently we are judged by what we have or don’t have,” he said. “But what really matters is not the amount of things that we own, the degree that we’ll be mailed in August, or the job that we secured for after graduation, but how we spend our time helping and impacting others. The things that we do…are defined by the grace that we extend to others during times of need, the patience we extend to those we see in passing or those who look like they are having a rough day, and the ambition we demonstrate when we reach for our goals.”
Domenico DiMaio ’97, president of the William Paterson Alumni Association, welcomed the graduates to their new roles as alumni. “I am proud to welcome you to the ranks of more than 80,000 Pioneers who live throughout New Jersey, the nation, and the world, and proudly represent our institution as accomplished leaders in every profession,” he said. He encouraged the new alumni to remain connected to their alma mater. “William Paterson has been your second home during your time at the University. We will continue to be that home whenever you need us. And we need you too.”
During the ceremony, three faculty were honored for excellence. Bruce Diamond, professor of psychology, received the 2020 Faculty Excellence in Research, Scholarship, and Creative Expression Award; Martin Becker, professor of environmental science, received the 2020 Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award, and Nadine Aktan, professor of nursing, received the 2020 Faculty Excellence Award for Service.
President Helldobler told the graduates that their talent and dedication—the Will. Power.—that sustained them through to earning their degrees is critical as they head into the world.
“That was true before, and is true now, more than ever, as we all try to figure out what our ‘new normal’ will look like,” Helldobler continued. “The ‘new normal’ that we will create together. Your local communities and your state need you. Your nation and your planet need you. We need you to help revitalize our economy and strengthen our government and civic institutions. We need you to help repair and heal a divided country. I know you can, and I know you will.”
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