NJ State Sen. Nellie Pou Tells Graduates to Take Risks, Embrace Opportunities During William Paterson’s 2024 Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony

Balloons and confetti filled the air as more than 2,000 bachelor’s degrees were conferred

NJ State Sen. Nellie Pou

New Jersey State Senator Nellie Pou encouraged the Class of 2024 to “take risks, step out of your comfort zone and embrace every opportunity to learn and grow” during her keynote address at William Paterson University’s 2024 Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony on May 22 in the Prudential Center in Newark.

“You are the architects of your future and your potential knows no bounds,” she said. “Every setback is an opportunity for growth, and every challenge is a chance to rise stronger and more resilient. Seize every moment and make it count. Never forget how far you have come.”

Describing herself as a “proud Puerto Rican and daughter of Paterson,” Sen. Pou said the lessons and wisdom of her upbringing had instilled her compassion for others. “Throughout my career as a state senator, I have been guided by the belief that in the face of challenges and adversity, we must remain steadfast in our commitment to serving our communities and advocating for those who are marginalized or voiceless,” she said.

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She urged the Class of 2024 to “remember to embrace the opportunities to engage with the world around you to make a difference and to leave a positive impact. Let us commit ourselves to being active participants and shaping a brighter future for all.”

Sen. Pou, the first woman and first Latina elected to represent New Jersey’s 35th Legislative District, was awarded an honorary doctor of humane letters degree at the ceremony in recognition of “her achievements as a public servant, for her initiatives focused on higher education access and affordability, and for her leadership and commitment to improving the lives of all citizens in the State of New Jersey.”

“I want to express my deepest gratitude to William Paterson University for this incredible honor,” she said. “Your unwavering commitment to academic excellence stands as a beacon of light and an inspiration to us all. Let us continue to work together, united by the common goal of creating a brighter, more inclusive future for all.”

In his address at the ceremony, University President Richard J. Helldobler congratulated the graduates on the significant accomplishment of obtaining their degrees. “Your presence here today is proof that you very much deserved your place at William Paterson and made the most of that opportunity. Whatever comes next, I know that you will make the most of that, too, and be able to proudly claim your place in the world,” he said. “I can assure you that our world very much needs all of the many and varied kinds of talent and dedication that the William Paterson Class of 2024 has to offer. It needs the kind of Will. Power. that got you where you are today.”

PresSpeech.jpgPresident Helldobler

President Helldobler encouraged the graduates to think about the world they live in, the world they want to live in, and what kind of impact they want to make with their new degrees, and he urged them to engage with others civilly, respectfully, and openly.

“Toward that end, our presence here today reaffirms the power of coming together to celebrate both what we have in common and what makes us unique. From my vantage point, I look out on a sea of graduates. Each of you is the same in some ways and different in others. You are all WP Pioneers. All 2024 graduates. All dressed in black gowns and caps with orange tassels,” he said. “At the same time, many of you have customized those mortar boards to make a personal statement. And many of you have stoles that tell part of your story as a first-generation student, an honors awardee, a veteran, a student-athlete, an EOF graduate or other designation central to your personal identity.”

“Far from dividing us, all of these differences have been opportunities to learn from one another. Indeed, you have all learned—and many of you have lived—on one of the most diverse university campuses in New jersey,” he continued. “May we all learn from these lessons and commit our talents, skills, and energy to building a better, healthier, more just world. Be that person who brings your communities together, even when the conversation is a difficult one.”

Michaela Raguseo, a May 2024 graduate with a bachelor of arts degree in mathematics, summa cum laude, was selected as the undergraduate student speaker. She acknowledged many in the Class of 2024 who graduated from high school at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I know this is an extra special day for us,” she said. “We have had a pretty wild ride as we graduated high school at the peak of the pandemic, most of us never experiencing a prom or graduation. This commencement is my first true graduation experience.”

A member of the Pioneer softball team, Raguseo, who plans to pursue a graduate degree in applied mathematics and to teach high school mathematics, talked about how softball impacted her time at William Paterson. 

“While at first glance, aspiring to be a math teacher and being passionate about softball might seem unrelated, but the truth is that I thrive when I am being a team player, and that was never truer than here at William Paterson,” she said. “One day, when I become a teacher, I know I will be joining a team of likeminded educators who want to help students learn and grow.”

She encouraged the graduates to take the opportunities that come before them. “My final words of advice to you are if you have the chance to do something crazy and unimaginable, do it!” she said. “It may seem insane at first, but you can have extraordinary memories that will last you a lifetime.” 

The graduates, who ranged in age from 19 to 77, hailed from 20 states and 58 countries, and included 22 veterans and active service members. Nearly 50 percent are first-generation college students, and the majority worked while earning their degrees. More than 570 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.

During the ceremony, three faculty were honored for excellence. Marianne Sullivan, professor of public health, received the 2024 Faculty Excellence in Research, Scholarship, and Creative Expression Award; Nicole Davi, professor of environmental science, received the 2024 Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award, and David Demsey, professor of music, received the 2024 Faculty Excellence Award for Service. Alumni from the Class of 1974 also processed with the graduates and were acknowledged for their milestone 50th reunion.

The event, which drew more than 10,000 family and friends, marked the University’s 201st Commencement ceremony.