Students Recall Challenges and Triumphs during Commencement Exercises

May 23, 2022

Bright sunshine and unseasonable heat may have brought a drop of sweat to the brow, but they did nothing to dampen the spirits of graduates and their families gathered on the Great Lawn during St. John’s University’s 152nd annual Commencement Exercises on May 22. More than 2,300 undergraduate degrees were conferred at the ceremony for students attending the QueensStaten Island, and Manhattan campuses, as well as for those who earned their degree online. 

During his welcoming remarks, Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., President of St. John’s, told graduates that they had demonstrated grace, pluck, and spirit in the face of a difficult four years, which were marked by the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If you think about your mind four years ago, and your mind today, there should be a vast difference,” Fr. Shanley stressed.

“I hope that you have changed your mind countless times since you have been at St. John’s. One of the marks of intellectual maturity is the ability to change your mind in the face of evidence, data, and dialogue with those who see the world differently from you.”

He added, “You have learned how to learn, and that process must continue for the rest of your life.” Fr. Shanley observed that the biggest obstacle to continuing on that journey is the notion of confirmation bias, which is defined as the tendency to only listen to those who confirm what one already believes.

Fr. Shanley observed that if people only interact with those who agree with their beliefs in a comfortable echo chamber, “We become fearfully certain we are right, and those who disagree with us are not only wrong, but bad. It cannot be that way with you. You have been educated to be lifelong mind changers. Continue to truly test your ideas and beliefs by being open to disconfirmation through new evidence, and new arguments with people who see things differently. Do not be afraid of ambiguity and uncertainty. Embrace intellectual humility in the Vincentian spirit.”

During the prior week on the Queens campus, the University conferred graduate degrees to students in five of its Schools and Colleges: St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, The School of Education, The Peter J. Tobin College of Business, The Lesley H. and William L. Collins College of Professional Studies, and the College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences.

André McKenzie, Ph.D., Vice Provost and Interim Chief Diversity Officer, and Adjunct Associate Professor in The School of Education, served as Commencement speaker and was the recipient of the President’s Medal, which is given to an individual who has achieved exceptional personal and professional success, and rendered outstanding service to the University or society.

“You have faced circumstances over the past two years that none of us could have ever imagined,” he told the class in his speech. “It could not have been easy for you. Yet, through it all, you persevered. And despite those challenges, through your resilience, your courage, your strength, and your adaptability in the face of adversity, you kept your eyes on the prize.”

Dr. McKenzie is well known around the Queens campus for an ever-present smile and joyful attitude. People ask him if he is always happy—and he said the answer is no. “There are so many things that happen in our lives on a daily basis that we have absolutely no control over. We cannot change our past. We cannot change the fact that people will act or respond to us in a certain way. But I firmly believe that one aspect of our lives that we do indeed have control over is our attitude. We have a choice every day regarding the attitude we decide to embrace, and how we will show up in spaces and how we will present ourselves.”

Student speaker Hajarah Dar, a Criminal Justice major, told her fellow graduates they had made history. “We persevered and triumphed through one of the most disruptive times in higher education. We did not allow ourselves to be sidelined by COVID-19. It did not keep us from going after our dreams. We did what we always do—find new ways to keep going.”

She added, “I knew I had found the University that cared about me as an individual. A few years later, I look around and realize that together we’ve created a home. The Great Lawn is our backyard where we study, have picnics, and play kickball. We came to this University hoping for a degree and some friends. Instead, we walk away with so much more—a second family.”

Leeon Vant, a Finance major, said his primary feelings included excitement and a sense of freedom after a long journey. One of his favorite classes was Classical Archaeology with Robert Forman, Ph.D., Professor of English and Languages and Literatures. “It was fascinating and inspired me to study abroad in Rome, Italy, the following semester, which was absolutely incredible.”

Leeon felt incredibly fortunate to have the global learning experience; just barely a month after his return, the pandemic began in earnest. While he lost almost two years of attending college in person, he believes St. John’s administrators did the best they could in the situation and expressed gratitude for the lengths the University went to make it so positive.

Aly Sandara, a Homeland Security major, called the last four years “quite a journey.” She added, “I’m nervous, excited, and have chills. After this, the real world beckons.”

She said her first year was the most exciting and memorable. “I explored so many clubs, got to know the campus, and made so many friends. Then the pandemic hit, which actually had some positive impacts.”

Aly explained that while challenging, she still managed to get to know more classmates through the online experience. “It was unique, but St. John’s made the best of it.” She is attending St. John’s for graduate school and has been accepted into the Homeland Security and Criminal Justice Leadership program.

Marketing major Pedro Sandoval said, “Today I feel overwhelmed and excited for the new chapter in my life.” A native of Woodside, Queens, Pedro was a commuter student but always felt like St. John’s was his second home. “A moment that really sticks in my head was a theology class I took sophomore year. I thought it was going to be boring, but it turned out to be the most fun, exciting, and interesting class I ever took. I had a great professor and classmates.”

Sal Chabla, also a Marketing major, said Commencement was a dream come true for both him and his family. “We’ve worked so hard to get to this day, and it’s actually happening.”

A native of Queens, Sal cited his experience as an orientation leader as his most memorable college experience as he was able to spend a summer living in a dorm at St. John’s. “My fellow leaders became a second family to me. We had such great times, and I really enjoyed learning about the history of this campus.”

Communication Arts major Sarah Khan shared that her St. John’s highlight was membership in the Indo-Caribbean Student Association. “Our events were awesome,” she said, as they made her appreciate even more her dual heritage, which is Trinidadian and Guyanese.

Sarah noted that the majority of her St. John’s experience was remote—but for her senior year, she was back on campus and made the most of every minute. “The way St. John’s pivoted to online learning and back again impressed me so much. The whole experience was great.”