St. John’s Tobin College of Business to Host ‘2020 Prom’ for University’s Class of 2024

The Peter J. Tobin College of Business building in the evening
May 2, 2024

On Friday, May 3, 2024, the graduating class of The Peter J. Tobin College of Business at St. John’s University will have the opportunity to experience a rite of passage denied to them as high school students: senior prom.

While colleges around the country ready May graduation ceremonies, Tobin College’s preparations include hosting a unique “2020 Senior Prom” from 5:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., ET, across two floors of its spacious location on the Queens campus of St. John’s University. In addition to dancing, food, and keepsakes, the event will feature two separate photo booths for student portraits: “2024 Grad” and “Prom 2020.”

The 600+ students graduating from Tobin this academic year are among the 55.1 million students who were impacted by the near-total shutdown of 124,000 public and private school buildings across the U.S. in March 2020, according to Education Week. In just two weeks, their last year in high school became something radically different than any seniors’ before or since.

“When we realized we were making plans to graduate the first cohort that started after the Covid-19 pandemic began and who experienced their first year here learning remotely, we knew Tobin had to do something special for them,” said Tobin’s dean, Maciek Nowak, Ph.D. “It made sense to give them a senior prom as a parting gift to acknowledge all that they’d sacrificed and overcome in the last four years.”

In spring 2020, Tobin’s Class of 2024 faced a growing pandemic just as they were celebrating the end of high school. Schools initially said they were closing for two weeks, and many seniors fully expected to return or at least be able to say goodbye to the place and people who had been such a big part of their lives.

“I’ll never forget the day the announcement came over the loudspeaker saying we were going to have two weeks off from school and to make sure everything was clean,” remembers Isabella Lovasz, who graduated June 2020 from St. Francis Prep in nearby Fresh Meadows. “Two weeks became a month, and then the last time we ever went back was to clean our lockers, one at a time, and exit as quickly as we entered.”

“The last four years have been a rollercoaster of challenges, growth, and unexpected turns,” said Javance Corraya, a Finance major who made Dean’s List his first year at St. John’s. “There’s a bittersweet nostalgia for the milestones I missed – no prom, no traditional graduation – all because of the shadow the pandemic cast. High school’s end wasn't marked by the usual farewells, no tearful goodbyes to teachers who shaped me, no last hurrah with friends who became family. Instead, it was a quiet exit, a silent transition into a new chapter.”

“This class experienced lockdown instead of a grand finale, drained of excitement about prom and graduation, which they’d been looking forward to for so long,” said Jennifer Goddard, Tobin’s director of marketing and communications, who planned the College’s senior prom in partnership with a team of six students, half of whom graduated high school in 2020.

“I believe that many buried their disappointment and never processed that loss because it paled in comparison to the gravity of loss around them—the 23 million Americans who lost their jobs and, most tragically, the 1.2 million whose lives were lost. We’re now at a distance where it’s okay for these feelings to surface. This event is necessary on a deep, subconscious level, even if just to broach the conversation, recognize their loss, and help them realize how strong they are and how proud they should be. We can’t change how these remarkable students’ time in high school ended, but we can change how it ends at Tobin.”

“As hard as it was leaving my high school and never having those senior memories that I waited so long to have, I'm grateful to St. John's for doing their best to give it back in their own way,” said Lovasz, who currently works as a swim coach while pursuing a Master of Science degree in Enterprise Risk Management from Tobin.

While the business school at St. John’s has a long history of hosting formal dances since its establishment in 1927, the last one occurred so long ago that not even Professor John P. Clarke, Esq., affectionately known around campus as “Mr. St. John’s,” can say when. Clarke is an alum who graduated in 1955 from what was then the School of Commerce and in 1957 from the School of Law. Approaching 90, he teaches business law and can readily share a lifetime of university history right up to last night’s award dinner and today’s alumni luncheon.

Clarke remembers the dances that occurred before they faded into obscurity. “It was a big, formal occasion held at hotels like the Commodore, the Biltmore, or the Roosevelt in Manhattan,” he remembers. “It was student-run and a big deal to be on the planning committee … but things have changed.”

In the absence of an annual formal by the College, student workers who support Tobin’s marketing are its de facto prom committee, helping to plan strategy and produce nostalgic social media content for the event. Emily Hernandez is one of the team’s students who graduated high school in 2020 (Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens) and is pursuing a Master of Science in Business Analytics at Tobin.

“During one of our weekly team meetings in March, it came up that it’s been four years since the pandemic started,” said Hernandez. “The conversation sparked the idea of holding a prom to try to make up for what students lost that year. It’s not just about celebrating an occasion, but about bringing closure to a graduating class who was unable to reach this milestone because of COVID. We have made it this far, and I’m incredibly appreciative that I get to share this moment and celebrate with my fellow graduates.”

To help announce the event, she created an Instagram reel for Tobin’s account using local news reports about school closures as well as social media trends that made time away from friends feel less lonely. Another student on the team, first year marketing major Adina Stancu, suggested adding 2020’s biggest song, The Weekend’s “Blinding Lights,” which would have been on every prom DJ’s set list, but instead inspired TikTok dance challenges during lockdown.

“I hadn’t thought about those memes and songs in so long, but I realize they’re how me and my friends stayed connected,” Hernandez said. “My school’s prom was canceled, and we had graduation in cars driving by the school, except we didn’t have a car at the time so my family rented one with a sunroof so I could wave to my teachers and friends.”

“I was supposed to be celebrating my final year in high school,” said Joniel Arias, a Business major who graduated in 2020 from St. John’s Prep in Boston. “But instead, those times were taken from me. Because I was unsure what the future held, I deferred my acceptance to St. John's University before committing to my next four years.”

Arias also works on Tobin’s student marketing team and created a reel for Tobin’s Instagram using personal footage of his “graduation” (“my mom set up a surprise drive-by parade with all my friends and family congratulating me from afar”). The reel includes a report by CBS’ local affiliate WBZ about Arias’ school headmaster and staff driving to all 284 graduates’ homes to hand-deliver diplomas. “As I was gathering clips of 2020 seniors for the reel, I was surprised by how everyone's 'graduation' looked and how each school did something a little different.”

Notwithstanding their collective departure from high school, the first year of college proved to be equally challenging. “It was bad enough that my prom and high school senior trip were canceled, but so was most of my freshman year,” said Matthew Siegel, an honors student pursuing a Master of Science in Finance who will be consulting at Protiviti this summer. “Feeling cheated and starting on a bad note, I thought my entire college experience would be taken away due to social distancing, virtual classes, and canceled events.

“However, as time progressed, so did my college experiences. I met new people, joined interesting clubs, organizations, and initiatives, and even pursued various study-abroad programs in Italy, France, Ireland, and England. Looking back, I am extremely grateful for the amazing people and faculty who tried to make the best out of a bad situation, and I will never take anything for granted ever again.”

“St. John's became more than just a place of learning,” said Corraya, who currently works as a universal banker at Citi. “It became a sanctuary, a refuge from the uncertainties of the outside world. Looking back now, I realize that while my high school experience may have been cut short, it was merely the prologue to a much grander story. Ultimately, it’s not the milestones we miss that define us but the resilience with which we face the challenges that come our way.”

“There was so much uncertainty and fear surrounding basic tasks like grocery shopping or even leaving the house in 2020, they could have given up on a much bigger challenge like college,” said Goddard. “Leaving high school can be a difficult transition under normal circumstances, which makes what these young adults did even more impressive: they found their way here, powering through territory that was new to everyone. And with the support of family, friends, and educators, they found a way to thrive. The word ‘resilient’ is a commencement speech staple, but this cohort has already proven their resilience in unprecedented ways.”

“Four years and one global pandemic later, they are graduating from St. John’s University and Tobin College of Business, many with honors and jobs at top firms already secured,” added Dean Nowak. “I hope the business world is ready for them because these young adults have thus far proven to be unstoppable in doing what they set out to achieve.”