Sense of community, togetherness for ‘unprecedented’ class at Stockton

Their high school graduations likely took place on a Zoom call. Their get-to-know-you freshman year was spent away from each other — faces likely covered with a mask.

There’s a reason Stockton University President Joe Bertolino told the Class of 2024 that its experience was “unprecented” — it was.

“Gosh, how annoying did that word become?” he asked the group during the recent ceremony. “But, when thinking about what that word means, I think it’s a more fitting description for the Class of 2024.”

Bertolino listed many other things that have happened in the world over the last four years and suggested that has taught the students how to adapt, find core values and stick to them, and remain motivated.

“You found your voice and used it to speak your mind and stand up for what you believe in,” he said. “Through all the trials and tribulations, you found and built your community. The people who supported you, laughed with you and maybe cried with you. … These relationships matter.”

The university held two ceremonies for the approximately 2,000 graduates who received bachelor’s degrees. Many celebrated the fact they had an event.

Many of the students gathered for the ceremonies didn’t get a high school graduation. The COVID-19 pandemic discouraged gatherings of large groups of people and further isolated students by forcing classes online.

“When we first met, we only knew what each other’s eyes looked like above our masks,” Maya Vaughn, a Bachelor of Science graduate in psychology with a minor in behavioral neuroscience, said. “We’ve accomplished something so large and indescribable, something others can’t say they’ve done. No other generation of college students have experienced what we persevered through.”

Keynote speaker Dave Sholler discussed the importance of overcoming challenges by building a community.

Sholler, a 2006 Stockton graduate, grew up in Egg Harbor Township in what he called “a broken home.”

“Poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, trauma all inflicted damage on our family,” said the chief communications officer for the Philadelphia 76ers and Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment. “For most of my young life, my three siblings and I battled obstacles that children should never face.”

Sholler talked about how his family dealt with several eviction notices from their trailer park home, a parent who struggled with substance abuse and nearly constant financial despair.

“The odds were stacked against us. Heavily. The stats said we’d repeat the cycle,” Sholler said about himself and his siblings. “But I stand before the Class of 2024 living proof that odds are made to be defied, that generational cycles are meant to be broken and that, while statistics may help predict future outcomes, they don’t predict all of them.”

He said that in his situation the statistics didn’t consider the most valuable set of data — “the power and value of community. The power of resilience, and the power of betting on yourself.”

Each of the speakers urged the new graduates to take advantage of this newly earned community, build off it and make a difference in the world.

“We may not have had a high school prom, or a typical high school graduation, but look at us now,” Vaughn said. “Look how much stronger we are, together.”