At NJCU, a graduation that goes far beyond conferring degrees

1,587 graduates exemplify resilience, grit and determination matched by embattled school

Universities and colleges across the state have been holding glorious graduation ceremonies and celebrations in the past few weeks — the culmination of years of hard work for classes of students who have persevered to reach an important and impressive milestone.

At New Jersey City University, it was more than that.

The school’s recent ceremony — in which 1,135 undergraduate, 406 graduate and 46 doctoral degrees were awarded — was a symbol of the grit of the school and all those connected to it.

Beset with financial issues that threatened its very existence, NJCU pushed through and found a way.

NJCU interim President Andrés Acebo, who was presiding over his first commencement ceremony, was moved by the moment.

“To the friends and families and loved ones, I wish you could see what I’m seeing right now,” he told the crowd at the Prudential Center. “It really is probably the most beautiful thing that I’ve seen in a very long time. Promise fulfilled. Grit and perseverance, dedicated and endured: The Class of 2023.”

He recognized the impact this class of graduates can have.

“We’re witnessing something incredible today,” he said. “The future is presently seated in this room. It’s unfolding brilliantly before our eyes. It’s those perspectives that must shape our promise to our collective future — a promise that you will shape a better life, not just for yourself, but for your community at large.

“I urge you to resist the temptation to believe that success will be found by creating distance from where you started. Pursue and chase happiness — happiness that will be solidified with purpose, because purpose crosses disciplines.”

Key leaders are noticing.

Tania León, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, highly regarded conductor, educator and advisor to arts organizations, and Ryan Haygood, a nationally respected civil rights lawyer, received honorary doctorate degrees and addressed the graduates.

The Joint Legislative Resolution presentation.

And Assemblywomen Angela McKnight (D-Jersey City) and Annette Chaparro (D- Hoboken) presented a framed Joint Legislative Resolution by Chapparo, state Sen. Brian Stack (D-Jersey City) and Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Jersey City) that honored and saluted the NJCU Class of 2023.

The resolution noted that the strength and prosperity of the state of New Jersey greatly depends on a thorough and efficient education of all citizens, recognized that NJCU stands as a beacon of the heights to which education can aspire and commended NJCU for being an exceptional example of the success that is possible in service to the common good.

“No matter what you have gone through — you may have lost a loved one, you may have had to eat rice just to get bus fare to get here — whatever you’ve done, you’re sitting here today,” McKnight said. “Your higher power has given you the assignment, and you understood the assignment. Because you’re going to walk across this stage and you’re going to receive that diploma, and you’re going to hold it up, and you’re going to be proud and say ‘I did that.’ So, I thank you for allowing me to be here today, and, remember, you have a fighter, you have a sister, you have a mentor, you have a friend, you have an elected official, a community leader in me to stand with you.”

McKnight noted the efforts of Acebo.

“Let me tell you about your president,” she said. “He is amazing. He is fighting with you, and he is fighting for you. And it is my honor to stand with him to fight for NJCU.”

Chaparro said the efforts of the students — and the obstacles they overcame — cannot be overstated.

“This is a huge accomplishment — be proud of yourself,” she said. “Life is full of many challenges and surprises, it’s what you make of it. I’m Latina, I grew up in the projects, had many challenges and struggles and became a state legislator representing my hometown of Hoboken, Weehawken, Union City and parts of Jersey City. Who would have thought, from the projects to the State House. Dream big. Your future is whatever you want it to be. Your future matters. Every student at NJCU — their future matters. This is why your interim President Andrés Acebo and the entire NJCU family continues to fight hard for the success and future of the NJCU students and their families.”

Pete Hernandez, chair of the NJCU Foundation board, implored the Class of 2023 to use their degree as a “compass” to provide them with the first step of many toward what drives them.

“In my own life, I used my degree in accounting to help me understand not only the financial information of an organization, but to lead me down a path where I met so many incredible individuals — many of them on this stage with me today — who helped me to expand my career outside of accounting,” he said. “Those individuals believed in me and gave me the confidence to take risks and run toward what scared me without fearing mistakes or failures. Recognize those individuals and realize that you may have already met some of them, during your time at NJCU.

“They are your teachers, classmates, roommates and many of us sitting up here who have seen the passion in your eyes and the desire in your heart. Remember all, and please always remember where you came from and the hard work you put in to get here. Because it is your hard work and all the experiences and struggles in your life that make you unique, I implore you to hold on to them and use them to set you apart from the rest.”

Haygood left the Class of 2023 with a message.

“I think that unprecedented times summon unprecedented people to do unprecedented things,” he said. “Class of 2023, that is who you are. You are unprecedented. Class of 2023, with your NJCU degree, you’re prepared to do what has never been done or known before, and we need you now more than ever.

“We need your voice, your excellence, your commitment to addressing the most difficult issues of our time. We need your heart for justice, your proximity to our communities, your righteous indignation, outrage, impatience and urgency. We need your leadership and advocacy to help fill the cracks in our foundations and build a new one. We need you, finally, NJCU Class of 2023, to help us design a new New Jersey and I cannot wait to bear witness to what you all will create.”

To watch the ceremony, click below.