By Patrick Donachie
An overcast sky was no match for the joy and satisfaction among the crowd that assembled at St. John’s University Sunday to celebrate commencement for the class of 2016.
President Conrado Gempesaw said that the skies threatened rain, but the university wanted to make sure that each graduate was able to walk across the stage and accept his or her degree.
“Our students and their families have worked so hard for the past four to five years,” he said. “And we believe we should honor them.”
About 2,500 students were slated to receive their undergraduate degrees during the ceremony. Gempesaw said that the graduates spanned a range of experiences, cultures and ages—the youngest recipients were 19, while the oldest graduate was 61 years old. There were 104 international students from 39 countries, and 664 of the students were graduating with honors.
One of those graduates was April Gardner, a biology major and the student commencement speaker for the event. April’s mother, Monica, said the family had driven through the night from their home in Fairfax, Va, to celebrate her daughter’s accomplishments. She lauded the university’s programs and student life.
“It’s been wonderful, and she’s someone who takes advantage of every opportunity,” Gardner said, speaking about her daughter. “She just had a great experience.”
During her speech, Gardner described the nervousness that she and her classmates shared in the early days of their freshman year, and stressed that the graduating students were primed for their next opportunities based on the “Catholic, metropolitan, global and Vincentian values” that the school had instilled in them.
“We call it commencement, a beginning for the intimidating next step of our lives for which we’ve been readily prepared,” she said, asking her classmates to acknowledge the opportunities offered by the school. “Sometimes we get so caught up in the monotony of the day-to-day that we forget the incredible cards we’ve been dealt.”
The president’s medal was presented to the Most Rev. Nicholas DiMarzio, Ph.D., D.D., the bishop of the Brooklyn Catholic Archdiocese. Robert A. Mangione, the school’s provost, described DiMarzio’s long work with immigrant communities in the city and throughout the nation.
“St. John’s was founded to serve immigrants and their children, while the bishop has dedicated his life to helping them,” he said.
DiMarzio said he was asked to address the topic of immigration, and during his speech he criticized the current political situation that had created such animosity toward newcomers, particularly undocumented ones.
“We must not be swayed by slogans or fearmongering,” he said, alluding to the tone of the presidential race. He continued to speak against some of the more vicious language and policy proposals he had heard in the course of the election season.
“We cannot deport 11 million people, nor should we, since they have contributed to our labor needs and social fabric,” he said. “We need to continue building bridges between our neighbors, not building walls.”
Reach reporter Patrick Donachie by e-mail at pdona