Commencement Acknowledges Challenges, Accomplishments, and Hope for the Future

May 20, 2024

On a picture-perfect Sunday with radiant sunshine, St. John’s University held its 154th annual Undergraduate-Level Commencement Exercise on May 19 on the Great Lawn of the Queens, NY, campus.

Nearly 1,900 undergraduate degrees were conferred at the ceremony for students attending the Queens, Staten Island, and Manhattan campuses, and for those earning their degrees through online coursework. The ceremony also represented the final Commencement for the University’s Staten Island campus.

During his welcoming remarks, Rev. Brian J. Shanley, O.P., President of St. John’s, noted that graduates arrived at St. John’s in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic. “You didn’t have a proper high school graduation. We hope that this ceremony today that marks a passage in your life will, in some way, make up for the difficult circumstances in which you came here.”

Fr. Shanley recognized the contingent of Staten Island graduates. “For 50 years, our Staten Island campus was such a blessing for St. John’s, but as scripture tells us, there’s a time and season for everything—and now we mark a time that Queens is the center for St. John’s going forward.”

He noted that amassing information is not necessarily the purpose of a college education. “You came to develop your mind, and certain habits of mind, that will guide you for the rest of your life,” he explained.

Two habits Fr. Shanley hopes students take with them from their time at St. John’s are empathy and humility. “Empathy starts with the capacity to listen to another person’s story, to understand why they hold the views they do. Rather than calling people out, you need to listen to their stories.”

He added, “The capacity to enter into the stories of other people, to enlarge the horizons of what it means to be human beyond our own personal experience, is what I hope you have taken away from your time here.”

Humility, which entails understanding the limitations of our own points of view, lies at the heart of the Vincentian charism, Fr. Shanley observed. It entails being comfortable with complexity, ambiguity, uncertainty, and multiple perspectives beyond a single black-and-white vision, he explained.

“A University is a community where I hope you have learned to be comfortable talking, listening, and dialoguing empathetically with people who are different from you and who think differently from you.” He added, “My hope and prayer is that you have been changed, that you have changed your mind while you were here, and that you will continue to change and evolve.”

Commencement speaker Jim Ziolkowski, Founder, President, and Chief Executive Officer of buildOn, who also received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree, spoke of the fruitful partnership between buildOn, an international nonprofit organization, and St. John’s. In 2013, his book, Walk in Their Shoes: Can One Person Change the World? was required reading for all incoming first-year students, and he delivered a speech to students that year. Since then, buildOn has collaborated with St. John’s students and faculty on many projects benefiting underserved communities.

He noted the Gospels provide inspiration that guide his life and give it purpose. During a trek to the Himalayas, Mr. Ziolkowski had a life-altering experience. “Before I could get to the mountains, I trekked through the rainforest.”

It was the monsoon season, and he stopped in a small village to dry off. “People were dancing in the rain, celebrating a school that they built. It was a two-day celebration. They never went home. Instead of the grinding injustice of extreme poverty, I saw hope and celebration around education. When I finally got home many months later, I saw poverty differently.”

A quote from the Gospel of Mark, “Fear is useless. What is needed is trust,” gave him clarity. Determined to build a school in Malawi, Africa, he accomplished that task despite many hardships. buildOn has since constructed more than 2,600 schools throughout Africa and completed countless service projects in the United States.

“Education is a fire nobody can put out,” he stressed. “This is your time. Now it is your turn, and my prayer for you is that you will be awakened to the light shining in you. The darkness cannot overcome that light. It’s God’s light, and it’s in all of us. If you understand that fear is useless, and that we are all one, you will change the world. You will become the ignition. You will light the fires—and yours will be one that nobody can put out.”

During the ceremony, honorary degrees were also conferred upon two alumni. Most Reverend Robert J. Brennan ’84C, Bishop, Diocese of Brooklyn, NY, received an honorary Doctor of Sacred Theology degree, and Edward A. Caban ’89SVC, Commissioner, New York City Police Department, was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. In a private ceremony, Robert F. Kalenka ’84CBA, ’91MBA, Corporate Vice President, Investor Communication Solutions Operations, Broadridge Financial Solutions, was awarded an honorary Doctor of Commercial Science degree.

On May 17, the University conferred graduate degrees to students in four of its Schools and Colleges: St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, 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.

The morning ceremony featured a heartfelt address from Patricia M. Reilly ’74C, ’75G, Government Affairs Consultant-Patricia Reilly Consulting. 

Graduates attending the afternoon ceremony were inspired by Frank Sadlier Dinger, Jr. ’71MBA, Chairman and Special Adviser, William H. Sadlier, Inc. 

Student speaker Angelina Patrice Licor, graduating with her Biology degree, said, “What a ride it has been! Many of us entered St. John’s in the Fall of 2020. We were making our college decisions when the coronavirus pandemic was rapidly changing our world.”

She added, “Amidst the chaos of the pandemic, we forged our own paths. Now, more than ever, we are prepared to make a positive impact on the world.”

Angelina spoke of the diversity of St. John’s, while stressing the ties that bind her fellow graduates. “Some of us are the first in our families to go to college. Some of us are international students, so being in New York puts us thousands of miles away from home. Others are from right around the corner. There are many differences among us—but we have the shared experience of being Johnnies. We’ve pursued different majors, and have different plans for after graduation, but will always be connected by common threads.”

She concluded, “We have each had our own unique St. John’s journey. Together, we’ve laughed, cried, studied hard, and even watched a once-in-a-lifetime solar eclipse. Today, we are celebrating the same achievement—and for that, we should be proud.”

Several graduates shared their most treasured memories of their St. John’s experience. Management major JeanCarlo Maldonado will miss the friends he made at St. John’s. “I picked up so many along the way that it’s going to be hard not seeing them every day,” he said.

Douglas Beney, an Interdisciplinary Business major who played for the St. John’s Men’s Golf team, will miss the camaraderie he experienced with his teammates. “They were a great bunch of guys, and I’m really grateful for the time we spent together,” he said.

Nicolette Iliadis, a Marketing major who served as Social Media Manager for the University’s Men’s Tennis team, formed strong bonds with her professors, whom she always felt made her a priority. “They made such an effort to cultivate that student-professor relationship,” she reflected.

Journalism major Sara Kiernan, who spent her entire time at St. John’s in various roles at The Torch student newspaper, did not have a high school graduation due to COVID restrictions. “This day feels so surreal,” she said. “I really can’t believe it’s finally happening. What I am going to miss most about St. John’s is the people. I love seeing my friends on campus. I am a very social person. Everyone is so close. I couldn’t be prouder of all the friends I made.”

CyJay Haynes, a Cyber Security Systems major, said, “It’s exciting and bittersweet being here today. I made so many lasting relationships at St. John’s.” He added, “One thing St. John’s taught me is perseverance. No matter what challenges you are faced with—such as dealing with COVID my first year—you always must push through. It will get better at the end.”

Brooke DeMartino, a Business major from the Staten Island campus, observed that while she was joyful at completing her college journey, there was a bittersweet air to the day due to the campus’s closing, noting that her mother, aunt, and uncle also attended. “I was so happy to be educated there because I was so close to the professors. I was part of so many organizations and clubs and made so many friends that I wish I had more time. It’s a little family that I’m going to miss so much.”

Risk Management and Insurance major Connor Davidson explained, “I had some really great teachers who were very passionate about teaching and sharing their knowledge and experience. Many of my professors had years in the business and passed on so much of their wisdom to me. I’m going to miss learning from them, but they prepared me so well for what’s to come.”

Baptiste Rigaud, a Business major from France, said, “It’s been amazing to study in New York. I did two years at St. John’s Paris location and then came here. I loved the experience of studying abroad. I hope to return in the future.”

Business major Jack Bell, an international student from the United Kingdom, echoed Baptiste’s sentiments. “Coming to New York City—the business capital of the world—to live and study, has been really cool.”

Criminal Justice major Adrianna Checkers, a member of the University’s Dance Team, awoke at 4 a.m. because she was so excited Commencement day had finally arrived. “I could not contain my happiness and enthusiasm,” she said. “This is my first real graduation, and the weather is gorgeous. I’m just so happy!”

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