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New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy paid tribute to the hard work and determination of the Class of 2023 during his keynote address at William Paterson University’s 2023 Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony on May 31 in the Prudential Center in Newark. The event, which drew more than 10,000 family and friends, marked the University’s 200th Commencement ceremony.
“Many of you are the first in your families to go to college. Many of you are immigrants or the children of immigrants. And many of you worked your way through school – holding down jobs and supporting your families, while also somehow finding the time to study and go to class,” he said. “In normal circumstances, that alone would be an incredible achievement, but the last few years have not been normal. Halfway through your academic career, a pandemic hit and it kicked us all in the teeth.”
Noting global problems like climate change, the war in Ukraine, and a growing political divide, Gov. Murphy acknowledged, “It is tough out there, but you know that already. You have seen more and dealt with more challenges than most people your age. As a result, you have had to grow up faster than others and the pandemic only pulled back the veil on the world’s inequities even further.”
However, he continued, “In the face of all this turmoil, the choices you have made fill me with hope for our future because you have chosen to get involved and do something about the world around you. The inequality we see, the injustices we fell, and the discrimination we face are not new—but what the world has never seen before is so many young people alive to the fact that the status quo is no longer acceptable and demanding change. That is what gives me hope.”
Noting that there is never a clear path to success, Gov. Murphy urged the graduates to persevere in the face of failure. “Failure is a part of life; but if you give up, that means walking away from a dream,” he said. “And here in Jersey, that is not how we do things. Never forget you have that Jersey spirit in you. That means we are scrappy, we never give up, and there is nothing we cannot achieve when we set our mind to it.”
Gov. Murphy, who is New Jersey’s 56th governor, has focused on building a stronger, fairer, more affordable New Jersey, including initiatives to make higher education for affordable through the New Jersey College Promise, which consists of two financial aid programs: the Community College Opportunity Grant Program and the Garden State Guarantee. He was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree at the ceremony in recognition of “his achievements as a public servant, his initiatives focused on higher education access and affordability, and for his leadership and commitment to improving the life of all citizens in the State of New Jersey.”
Also recognized at the ceremony was Dr. Jill Guzman, DNP ’14, director of William Paterson’s Counseling, Health, and Wellness Center, who received the President’s Medallion, the highest honor bestowed at the University. Guzman, who has served as co-chair of the COVID-19 Pandemic Response Team since March 2020, was honored for the “significant role she has played during the COVID-19 pandemic while continuing to oversee the provision of outstanding medical and behavioral health services to students.”
In his address at the ceremony, University President Richard J. Helldobler encouraged the graduates to think about the world we live in, their place within it, and what kind of impact they want to make with their new degrees.
“You will need to navigate the line between passion and practicality,” he said, noting that family and friends will offer them advice on what to do. “Find opportunities to combine your passions and practical considerations,” he added. “Be open to new things. You are young and just starting out, so it’s also OK if you haven’t quite figured out yet just what your passion is. You will.”
President Helldobler continued, “Whatever your passion and whichever path you choose, I can assure you that our world very much needs the diverse kinds of talent and dedication that the William Paterson Class of 2023 has to offer. It needs the kind of Will. Power. that got you where you are today.”
New Jersey State Senator Nellie Pou was also on hand to congratulate the graduates. “You, more than many graduates, had your share of challenges, including almost two full years of your college education occurring during a global pandemic and yet, here you are—thriving, succeeding, and graduating. We all could not be more proud of you and for you,” she said.
Racha Ahmad, a January 2023 graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English literature and political science, cum laude, was selected as the undergraduate student speaker. Ahmad, a refugee, came to the United States in 2014 from war-torn Syria with her mother and three younger siblings; her father, who remained behind in Syria with his ill father, finally arrived in the U.S. two weeks ago.
She spoke about her educational journey, which she has shared with her mother, Stani Hajbi, who also graduated at the ceremony with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, cum laude. “Taking this journey with my mom has been special for both of us,” she said. “My mother and I were taking on 12 to 16 credits a semester and held full-time jobs. My mother explained that by completing our studies and obtaining a bachelor’s degree, we would be able to find a good job and secure a better future.”
Ahmad added that during her time at William Paterson, she embraced freedom. “Life in Syria is different,” she said. “We don’t have the freedom to choose what school we go to or what course we study. Our final score from high school determines what area of study we pursue and what school we attend. To the Class of 2023: Remember that we are in the land of opportunity. Do not shy away from hard work and dedication…focus on what you want your future to be and reach high above the clouds. I am a living testimony that if given just an ounce of opportunity, you can do anything.”
In recognition of the University’s 200th Commencement ceremony, graduating student singer Salvatore Montero ’23 and William Paterson’s mascot, Pio, led President Helldobler, the platform party, the graduates, and the guests in a rendition of “Happy 200th Commencement;” a celebratory cake was wheeled on stage to mark the occasion. At the conclusion of the ceremony, balloons and confetti rained down on the graduates as they recessed from the arena.
The graduates, who ranged in age from 20 to 65, hailed from 20 states and 55 countries, and included 20 veterans and active service members. About 40 percent are first-generation college students, and the majority worked while earning their degrees. More than 550 students graduated with the Latin honors of summa cum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude for achieving consistently high, or perfect, grade point averages during their studies at William Paterson.
Also among the Class of 2023 were 23 graduates of the University’s bachelor’s degree in leadership and professional studies, a program specifically designed for adult students.
During the ceremony, three faculty were honored for excellence. Neil Kressel, professor of psychology, received the 2023 Faculty Excellence in Research, Scholarship, and Creative Expression Award; David Weisberg, professor of music, received the 2023 Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award, and Carrie E. Hong, professor of educational leadership and professional studies, received the 2023 Faculty Excellence Award for Service. More than a dozen alumni from the Class of 1973 also processed with the graduates and were acknowledged for their milestone 50th reunion.
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