“Some of you probably feel the exhilarating rush of endless possibilities, while some of you are feeling just flat-out uncertain, still not even sure if this is the right move. In this moment, I’m here to assure you all, that there’s thrill and power in shaping your own path and controlling your own destiny.”
That was the message of Aziza Shuler ’15CPS, Weekend Anchor and Reporter for CBS News Philadelphia, during her keynote address at St. John’s University’s annual New Student Convocation held on August 29 in Carnesecca Arena on the Queens, NY, campus. The convocation is a symbolic rite of passage for incoming first-year and transfer students that heralds their entrance into college life with an enthusiastic welcome reminiscent of their eventual Commencement in four years.
Ms. Shuler, who was born when her mother was incarcerated and faced innumerable obstacles on her journey toward becoming an Emmy® award-winning reporter, told students she was living proof they have the power to shape their own destiny. “Growing up, my life was filled with instability, trauma, and pain,” she said.
Afflicted since age 12 with alopecia, a disease that causes permanent hair loss, Ms. Shuler chose to reveal that fact publicly and not wear a wig at the Convocation.
“My journey was one of running from my circumstances and hiding my true identity, while still dreaming of one day being where I am now,” she recalled. “I promise you, it seemed like nothing in my life was going the way I had envisioned. I experienced some real dark times, and the only bit of light I had was within me, knowing that I deserved more, knowing that I was going to achieve more, if only I didn’t give up. That resilience, I believe, is inherent in all of us, waiting for the right circumstances to ignite its flame.”
Taking control of one’s life, Ms. Shuler stressed, is the first step toward leadership and success. She encouraged students to find organizations where they can meet like-minded individuals, find mentors, attend events, and avail themselves of the many resources the University provides to ensure their success.
“As I look out to see the thousands of youthful, vibrant, and eager faces in this crowd, what comes to my heart is you are the architects of your destiny. The journey ahead is yours to shape. Every trial you face, every obstacle you overcome, adds to the tapestry of your story—a story of resilience, courage, and unwavering determination. You are pioneers, breaking barriers and creating new legacies. Your presence here alone signifies you are on the right path.”
During his welcoming remarks, Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., President of St. John’s, told students,
“The ultimate purpose of the next four years is to find the meaning of your life.” He added, “I want you to think about the unique meaning of your life because you are uniquely gifted by God. You are a person, unlike any other who ever existed.”
Fr. Shanley said that while getting a good job was the ultimate goal of the college experience, it was not the most important. “We find meaning in our lives in community: a community where we find a sense of belonging, inclusion, and respect. We must learn how to build those human communities in which we can flourish. We hope over the next four years at St. John’s you will find the tools to build such a community—a community of inclusion, of belonging, and human flourishing.”
Simon G. Møller, Ph.D., Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, University Distinguished Professor, and Provost Endowed Chair, felt emotional as he looked out at the throng of new faces. “I encourage you to take advantage of the tremendous support that will be available to you,” he said. “Talk to your professors, talk to your academic advisors and student affairs administrators, talk to the campus ministers. We are all here for you to ensure that you are successful.”
Student speaker Nawsin Kamal, a Government and Politics major and President of Student Government, Inc., said, “St. John’s has provided me with professors and administrators who relentlessly encouraged me to pursue knowledge as a vehicle not only for advancement in my career, but also for human improvement.”
Nawsin told her audience that she has always felt an open line of communication exists with her professors. “You will encounter many thought-provoking ideas and lessons—and most of them will come from your fellow students, so do not hesitate to engage with one another.”
Adolescent Education major Patrick Tolan, a native of Boston, MA, fell in love with the campus on his first visit. “I’m excited about [Head Men’s Basketball Coach] Rick Pitino, and as a Red Sox fan, I guess I’ll root for the Mets,” he laughed.
Jacqueline Ghorra, a Childhood Education major from Brooklyn, NY, lives on campus, yet is still close to home. “I’m excited to student teach and get my license in New York State. I can’t wait to make new friends and have all the new experiences associated with college life. Everybody’s in the same boat and has been so welcoming, so I’m just throwing myself into it.”
On the same day, the annual Faculty Convocation was also held in Carnesecca Arena, which, much like the New Student Convocation, serves as an opportunity for the University community to welcome new faculty members to the fold.
Bernard A. Jones, DSc., Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Homeland Security, served as faculty speaker for the event. “Growing up in the inner city, education was my lifeline,” he said. “The South Bronx taught me lessons that no textbook ever could. It taught me about the strength that comes from struggle, the power of community, and the unwavering belief that education can break chains and open doors. Today, I proudly stand here as a living testament to the transformative power of education.”
Dr. Jones said his journey served as a call to action. “It is a reminder that St. John’s has a role in lifting those who come from the margins. When we embrace students from diverse backgrounds and acknowledge the resilience they bring to our classrooms, we change their lives and enrich the fabric of academia at St. John’s. It’s not about charity. It’s about recognizing the untapped wealth of potential in every corner of our society.”