The 18-year-old freshman version of Ryan Cleary would hardly recognize the honors student rendition of Ryan Cleary who received a bachelor’s degree Wednesday at SJC Long Island’s commencement at NYCB Live’s Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York.
“If I talked to the version of myself from four years ago, he would not expect to be where I am today,” said Cleary, 21, a double major in psychology and computer science who graduated Magna Cum Laude. “I have more confidence, more knowledge and increased awareness. And it just feels like so many opportunities are opening up to me.”
Cleary was among more than 1,000 St. Joseph’s College graduates honored at the afternoon ceremony, most of whom carry their own stories of transformation through education.
“St. Joseph’s College has provided us with support, knowledge and the skills we need in order to excel and even surpass our own expectations as individuals,” said master’s-degree-recipient Nikki Caputi, delivering the graduate speaker address. “It is up to us to share our intellectual values … and have a positive impact on the world.”
Goals: Helping the World
Conor Johnson, a political science and history major, and the undergraduate commencement speaker, declared “It should be the aspiration of each and every member of the St. Joseph’s College community to genuinely care about the world around them, and to contemplate the world beyond their immediate surroundings.”
St. Joseph’s Class of 2018 – 745 undergraduates and 315 graduates – is a group defined by a bias toward action.
“I want to help as many people as I can,” said Charlie Gambino, 21, who earned a bachelor’s in accounting and begins his pursuit of an M.B.A. in accounting tonight, during a 6:15 p.m. Accounting Theory and Research class in SJC Long Island’s O’Connor Hall.
“This day 16 years ago was the last day of the rescue and recovery efforts at Ground Zero. It’s when these people closed one chapter in their lives and started a new one,” said Gambino, 21. “It’s so ironic that today, we’re all closing our chapter in this book and opening up a new chapter.”
With Her Child in Mind
Annettal Spencer, 40, was inspired to return to school by the life of her daughter Marquia, who died at 9 years old after battling cerebral palsy. On Wednesday, she collected her master’s in human services leadership, one week after securing a management position at East End Disabilities in Riverhead.
“It hasn’t really hit me,” she said moments sitting for the graduation ceremony. “I think it will when I walk on the stage.”
Spencer said she is the first woman in her family to earn a master’s degree. Twenty-five family members and friends – part of a crowd of more than 7,000 – were there to celebrate her achievement.
As the graduates, faculty and staff paraded into the arena, contingents of the Suffolk County Police Emerald Society Pipes & Drums and the Long Island Brass Guild took turns serenading the audience.
“What is your dream for your life? Where do you want to go? What do you want to accomplish?” St. Joseph’s College President Donald R. Boomgaarden, Ph.D., asked the newly minted college alumni during his first SJC Long Island commencement address. “These are the big questions you must be asking yourselves today, and they are good ones.
“They are all connected to a bigger goal, the goal St. Joseph’s has for you to go out today, and transform the world for the better,” he added.
Psychology grads Brianna Defronzo, 22, and Courtney Nicholson, 24, are taking different paths toward changing the world.
Defronzo, a product of William Floyd High School, will return to school this fall to pursue a master’s in psychology, with hopes of eventually working in special education. Nicholson, 24, a Sachem North High School alumna, plans to continue working at a mental health community residence in Islip, before returning to school in one year to seek a master’s degree.
“I still feel like I have homework to do,” Defronzo said, in a moment of disbelief about her graduation. “There is definitely a feeling of relief. So much work led up to this day.”
At the ceremony, the College community honored the memory of Elizabeth Michele Gallagher, a graduate school student who died tragically in a weather-related car accident in March. Gallagher’s relatives accepted her posthumous Master of Arts in Childhood or Adolescence Special Education with an Annotation in Severe and Multiple Disabilities.
A Check Mark on the ‘Bucket List’
Among the graduates were adult learners who had long dreamed of earning a college degree. Retired Long Island Rail Road engineer Gene Lowery, 67, was among them.
“I left school 38 years ago, and went to work. And I’ve always wanted to finish,” said Lowery, an SJC Online student and U.S. Navy veteran of the Vietnam War who was accompanied by his son Dylan and his longtime friend, Father Gerard Toomey. “Now that I’ve retired, it’s been part of my bucket list. In the fall, I’m looking to go for a master’s degree in theology.”