For the first time in its history, the State University of New York at New Paltz divided its undergraduate commencement ceremony into two separate occasions, recognizing graduates of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences on Saturday, May 20 and the Schools of Business, Education, Fine & Performing Arts and Science & Engineering on Sunday, May 21.
With the college’s enrollment rates remaining steady and graduation rates increasing, more students than ever before were eligible to participate in the undergraduate ceremonies this year. Nearly 2,000 undergraduate and close to 600 graduate degrees were or will be conferred onto graduates of the August and December 2016 terms, the January and May 2017 terms and candidates for the August 2017 term. With nearly 10,000 people attending the 2016 commencement ceremonies last May, a decision was made afterward to divide the students into two groups this time around in order to reduce the strain on campus security during the ceremonies and to simply provide a better overall experience for the graduates and their families.
“This is the largest single gathering of the campus community and guests, and the safety and security of the event continue to be among our top priorities,” wrote college president Donald P. Christian in a statement sent out prior to the ceremonies. “There are no inside venues on campus or within a reasonable driving distance that can accommodate a gathering of this size, hence the need to hold it outside. More students and more families have added to the complexities of traffic control, safe ingress/egress, crowd control and general security, both for the campus and the New Paltz community. The ceremony, where every graduate walks across the stage and has their name called, takes about two hours and fifteen minutes, and has been followed later by students and families trying to leave with parts of campus and local traffic coming to a virtual standstill. We have noted in recent years that many graduates and their families do not stay for the entire program, disrupting and diminishing the experience for those students and their families who march across the stage in the latter portion of the program.”
Commencement ceremonies held at SUNY New Paltz on Saturday got off to a stately start. Students filed in accompanied by the “Processional,” performed by the Hudson Valley Brass Quintet, followed by a beautiful rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner delivered by undergraduate music students Joshua Tobias, class of 2017, and Daniel Chiu, class of 2018, who enhanced our National Anthem with rich baritones in harmony.
Opening remarks were delivered by college president, Donald P. Christian, who noted this was the 189th year of the institution. He spoke of the importance in recognizing all those who had a part in the process that led to graduation, from the students who put in the hard academic work necessary, to their parents and faculty who supported them.
The commencement speaker was Jessica Faieta, SUNY New Paltz alum, class of 1985, currently a high-ranking official at the United Nations, appointed assistant secretary-general and regional director for the UN’s Latin America and Caribbean program in 2014. She reminisced about campus life during her time in New Paltz, and the differences she found living in this region, so different from her native Ecuador.
“Cherish all you have learned here — and not only from the books — and be thankful for the privilege,” she told the graduates. “Remember that life is too complex to think that we can thrive on our own. Be grateful to your parents, to your family, your friends, your teachers, your mentors… not only today, but always. And don’t feel embarrassed to reach out for help, or to say thank you, or to let someone know you were inspired by their words, or their deeds.”
Even if you don’t know where to start now, she told the students, “start somewhere; anywhere. Life will take you places. I never imagined the most important things that were going to happen in my life.”
During her years in New Paltz, Faieta said, she prepared for a career in business and finance, thinking she wanted to be a stockbroker. But she was also interested in working internationally. Unsure of just how to go about that, she said, she followed her fascination with the United Nations, wanting to know more about how the people inside had come to work there. She came across an opportunity to join the UN by working in Guyana, in “very tough living circumstances, very far from the Wall Street job I once aspired to. But I knew then and there that I had found my calling, to work in something bigger than myself. And without knowing it, this was the start of my 25-year career.”
Faieta said her work for the UN heading the recovery in Haiti after the devastating earthquake of 2010 was her most difficult assignment and yet the most rewarding. “Take a risk,” she told the students. “Go where no one wants to go. Nothing is set in stone after college. Your career will be a long and twisting road… careers are about perseverance, and taking pride in every small step that you take.”
And no matter what, adversity finds everyone, she added. “And when this occurs, don’t be scared by adversity. Embrace it. Be compassionate and be willing to go beyond the borders of your comfort. It will only enrich your life and it will make you more resilient in your walk forward.”
Finding one’s way is a matter of standing for something, Faieta said. “Find out what your essence as a human being is, and what you are willing to fight for. Build your philosophy of life by questioning ideas that surround you; by doing that you will embark on the amazing journey of finding yourself, the only journey that is worth taking.”
The valedictorian was unable to attend the ceremonies on Saturday, so the student address was given by class of 2017 salutatorian Jonathan Baez. He spoke first of his trepidation in giving a speech at all, and then the difficulty of finding an appropriate message to deliver. Baez told the assembled audience that he realized everyone would be following a different path, but there was some advice that should apply to all.
Modestly couching it as being “as much wisdom as a 21-year-old is capable of imparting,” he cited a favorite author, Leo Tolstoy, who said if he were asked for the most useful advice he could give, he would say, “in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, and look around.” Telling overburdened students who also had jobs on the side to ‘cease your work and look around’ sounds like difficult advice to appreciate, Baez admitted, “but I have found that even during busy times, small victories can help us make it through. I personally have found that there aren’t many things that a morning hike and a brief tête-à-tête with Netflix can’t fix.”
It’s always good to have a plan, and a strong work ethic “has rarely betrayed the one who employs it,” he added. “Indeed, pushing in the direction of one’s dreams has led many people to achieve great success.” But dreams aren’t guaranteed, Baez said, and “even the best-laid plans have a way of not panning out. It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.”
In the end, Baez noted, it comes down to this: “In every moment, be present. Be open to the shades of your life and take them as they come. Even in those spaces where life doesn’t quite go as you would like, allow yourself the experience of what comes your way. Because at the end of the day, a full life is one in which every minute has been thoroughly inhabited… don’t forget to enjoy the ride.”
When it came time for the graduates to walk across the stage and receive their degrees, the first conferred was awarded posthumously to the late Arianna Marika Williams, a 21-year-old SUNY New Paltz student who died in a car accident this past March. She would have graduated with her classmates on Saturday, receiving a bachelor’s degree in sociology with a concentration in criminology. The college named Williams “Outstanding Graduate in Sociology,” and to a standing ovation from her fellow students, Arianna’s family accepted her degree on her behalf.
Sunday’s commencement ceremonies featured SUNY New Paltz Foundation Board chair Michael T. Keegan as commencement speaker and Jessica Weeks, class of 2017, delivering the student address. ++