There was the 67-year-old U.S. Army veteran who earned a bachelor’s simply because it was something she “had to do,” the 44-year-old New York City cop collecting the M.B.A. degree in order to “open a new chapter” in his life and the 21-year-old Hawaiian, celebrating her journalism degree with family who flew in from that state’s “Big Island.”
It seemed as if every graduate at St. Joseph’s College’s 99th annual commencement on Sunday had a story to share.
“This was something I had to do for my own self-worth,” said Billie Wilson, 67, of Staten Island. “This was something I started when I was 20, and now I’ve finished it.”
Wilson, a Chicago native, explained that she transferred to new cities many times while serving in the U.S. Army, and that she accumulated college credit from numerous institutions before transferring to St. Joseph’s in 2012. This past spring semester was her first as a full-time student.
On Sunday at the New York Marriott at the Brooklyn Bridge, Wilson was one of nearly 340 SJC Brooklyn students – undergraduates, graduates and non-traditional students already in the workforce – who proudly received their degrees.
“I would like to acknowledge what makes us unique: our veteran students, our student parents, our first-generation college graduates, our international students and our part-time students,” Class of 2018 valedictorian Juanita Arias said, addressing a crowd of more than 1,500, which included St. Joseph’s faculty and staff and hundreds of relatives and friends of the graduates. “We are so proud that, together, we are the graduating class of 2018!”
Arias, an Academic Center for English Language Studies honors student, graduated with a 3.98 grade point average. The sociology and biology double-major is looking to land a job at an organization that focuses on social justice.
“I am proud to say that one of the most important values we have learned through our involvement at the College is the value of social service,” said Arias, a Colombian native who moved to the United States with her family when she was 12.
St. Joseph’s College President Donald R. Boomgaarden, Ph.D., participating in his first commencement at the College, encouraged the graduates to maintain a healthy level of skepticism and to strive to transform the world for the better.
“What will give you joy – and what will give joy to all around you – is to follow your desire to do good, and to link that desire to a higher task,” said Dr. Boomgaarden, president of the institution since July 2017. “You must oppose every form of hatred with the invincible power of love.”
Their New Chapter
As proud as New York City Police Officer Juan Duque was of himself for graduating with an M.B.A. at 44, the father of four seemed even more proud of the graduation cap decorated by his 10-year-old daughter Daniela. Her message on the cap was simple: “We love you Papo!”
“I’ll stay in the police department, but I’m now more prepared to explore my options,” said Duque, a Sunset Park, Brooklyn, native who received a scholarship from the NYPD to attend SJC Brooklyn. “This opens a new chapter in my life. St. Joseph’s College gave me an opportunity to do something I never thought I would be able to do.”
Single mother Jahaira Juarbe of Howard Beach, Queens, said so much of her seven-year journey toward earning a bachelor’s in organizational management was about setting an example for her two children, aged 12 and 6.
“I hope seeing me graduate is an inspiration to my children,” said Juarbe, 37, a U.S. Army Reserves veteran said. “It’s been a long and hard road, but I’m very happy I made it this far.”
Before Sunday, the last SJC Brooklyn commencement Siobhan Deasy had attended was in 1988, for her cousin Marion’s graduation. Deasy, who had moved to the United Stated from Ireland just one year earlier, said she “never forgot” about the ceremony and that it made her determined to one day be at the same event, receiving her own degree.
“It’s been a wonderful experience,” said Deasy, who earned an M.B.A. at 52. “I want to come back and be a professor here.”
To Graduate Is a Bit ‘Surreal’
Graduation was a bit of a “surreal” moment for Michelle Darris, 21, of Hawaii.
“During my freshman year, there was a senior who said it was going to all go by so quickly, and I was like, ‘Eh, whatever,’” said Darris, whose mother, brother, grandmother and uncle flew from Hawaii to see her receive her degree in journalism and new media studies. “And then now, just to be that senior who’s telling everybody it’s going to go by so quickly — it’s kind of surreal.”
Darris called her experience at St. Joseph’s “absolutely unique.”
On Wednesday, Selena Hinojosa of Manhattan received an offer to become a bilingual special education teacher at P.S. 143 in Queens. On Sunday, she celebrated receiving her degree in child study. And in September, she expects to be back at St. Joseph’s for graduate school.
“It was great receiving the job before graduation. Yes, it’s exactly what I wanted to do,” said Hinojosa, who was accompanied by her parents, younger brother, grandmother, step-father and boyfriend. “I feel like it still hasn’t hit me yet. Once I’m home at night, I’ll reflect on the day, but as of now I’m just happy. And I feel lucky to have my family here with me.”
The Chionchio Legacy Continues
The commencement ceremony included a special tribute to the family of 2018 graduate Jonathon Gallo, who earned a bachelor’s in marketing and business administration. He was the 12th member of his family to graduate from St. Joseph’s.
“He has worked so hard for this,” said Gallo’s grandmother Frances Fumo Chionchio, the first in the family to graduate from St. Joseph’s – in 1955 – and one of 10 alumni in her family who attended Sunday’s commencement ceremony.
“St. Joseph’s taught us all how to live,” Chionchio said. “It helped us all in solving life’s problems.”
Gallo’s mother Lisa Chionchio Gallo, a 1981 SJC Brooklyn graduate, called St. Joseph’s a “safe haven – a home away from home.”
“At. St. Joseph’s, I could be me and succeed at the same time,” she said. “The College helped me build a sense of individualism.”
To conclude the ceremony, SJC Brooklyn staffer and 2011 graduate Christian Lee Branch delivered a stunning and powerful version of “This is Me” from “The Greatest Showman.” His performance of the song, which encourages people to be themselves, received a standing ovation.
Sam Miller contributed to this report.