President Richard J. Helldobler encouraged the Class of 2021 to use their degrees to make a difference in the world in his remarks to the graduates during William Paterson University’s Virtual Commencement ceremony on May 14. Nearly 2,400 doctoral, master’s, and bachelor’s degrees were awarded.
“The world will need the kind of talent and dedication that you have to offer—the Will. Power.—that got you where you are today,” he said. “We will need you to help revitalize our economy and strengthen our government and civic institutions to ensure a more just and equitable society. We will need you to help repair and heal a divided country. I know it’s a tall order. But I have every confidence that each and every one of you can, with your own meaning of Will. Power., make a positive difference in the world, through the careers you choose and, just as importantly, by the simple, everyday actions you take in your homes and in your neighborhoods.”
The graduates, who ranged in age from 19 to 67, hailed from 7 states and 45 countries, and included 17 veterans and active service members. About one third are the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree, and the majority of students worked while earning their degrees.
More than 610 students graduated with the Latin honors of summa sum laude, magna cum laude, and cum laude for achieving consistently high, or perfect, grade point averages during their studies at the University. In addition, the Class of 2021 included the first graduates of the master of science in finance and financial planning, and of WP Online, the University’s new fully online degree platform with programs currently offered in business, education, and nursing.
President Helldobler reminded the graduates to make intentional choices as they reflect on their degrees and contemplate the path forward. “This past year has taught us hard but valuable lessons about the heroics of our first responders; the need for good science; the disparities of justice, economics, and health in our communities of color; and of the fragility of life,” he said. “May we all learn from these lessons and commit our talent, skill, and energy to building a better, healthier, more just world. Your new degree is a powerful tool that will open for you doors that are otherwise closed to many. Will you hold it open, so that others may pass through?”
Board of Trustees Chair Michael Seeve also spoke to the graduates, adding his congratulations. “You, our graduates, are now ready to go out and make your way in the world, while making the world a better place,” he said. “I know that your family and friends are very proud of you all. Please know that your entire William Paterson community is proud of you, as well. I hope, too, that you are proud of yourselves. Through your hard work and determination, you have earned something special. Your William Paterson degree will prove its value more and more over time. It is the result of everything you have invested in it. And it will pay you back again and again, through better career prospects, a supportive network of fellow alumni and mentors, and the priceless self-knowledge that makes education its own reward.”
Undergraduate student speaker Paola N. Ruiz, a May 2021 graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree in communication, cum laude, expressed her pride at joining the 17 percent of Latinas in the U.S. who hold a college degree.
“I am a first-generation college student and my biggest dream growing up was to be able to attend college,” she said. “To some people, it may seem like the average course of life events, but to me, an immigrant from a low-income family, going to college was my wildest dream. Today, I call myself a college graduate. I’m also honored to call myself a Pioneer,” she continued. “A resilient Pioneer who received an education and paved my path at WP. Someone who serves as an example for my younger sister, Julie. Someone who is thankful to all the family, friends, and professors who helped me get here…William Paterson University is the place we call home. For me, it’s the place where I realized that no dream is too big, no goal is too unsustainable—if you have Will. Power.”
John Penola ’07, who earned a master of fine arts degree in creative and professional writing, gave the graduate student address. A high school English teacher, he talked about how much we have learned during the pandemic, especially that our plans—our best laid plans—rarely work out the way we want them to.
“Graduate school—for many of us—was a carefully plotted, scheduled, and executed endeavor,” he said. “And as careful as we were with our timing, the world insisted—as it so often does—at having its own way…The best laid plans often go askew.” But, he added,
“We have so much to celebrate and—virtual though I may be, graduates—I’m speaking to you. And there you are, despite a world turned upside down. You did the work, and you leaned into your studies, or your friends, or your professors—and you didn’t merely live during this once in a century pandemic, you graduated during the damn thing. Congratulations, Class of 2021. Hold loosely the plans you make and celebrate fiercely your successes—the large and small alike.”
Domenico DiMaio ’97, president of the William Paterson Alumni Association, welcomed the graduates to their new roles as alumni. “I am honored to congratulate all of the members of the Class of 2021 and join with the rest of the University community as we recognize your achievements,” he said. “You have accomplished so much, completing your degrees while dealing with the added challenge of this worldwide pandemic, and we are so proud of your perseverance, your strength, and your resilience. Throughout your life, you will benefit from the skills you have developed over this past year.” DiMaio was also among the graduates this year, earning his second degree from William Paterson, an MBA with a concentration in accounting.
During the ceremony, three faculty were honored for excellence. Emmanuel Onaivi, professor of biology, received the 2021 Faculty Excellence in Research, Scholarship, and Creative Expression Award; Brenda Marshall, professor of nursing, received the 2021 Faculty Excellence in Teaching Award, and Katherine Makarec, professor of psychology, received the 2021 Faculty Excellence Award for Service.
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