The calendar said mid-September, but the weather and the mood on the Rose Hill campus on Saturday and Sunday had a festive, summer-like feel, as hundreds of recent graduates celebrated the completion of their studies at in-person ceremonies on Edwards Parade.
Members of the classes of 2020 and 2021 from four schools—the Graduate School of Social Service (GSS), the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS), the Graduate School of Education (GSE), and the School of Professional and Continuing Studies (PCS), were feted in individual ceremonies for their perseverance during trying times.
Graduate School of Social Service
The Graduate School of Social Service’s ceremony attracted roughly 300 graduates on Saturday. Shaniqua Orr, a 2021 graduate, serenaded her classmates for their strength and shared that she too had gone through tough times, losing her parents in 2019 and 2020.
“Beginning March 2020, all of Fordham and the world experienced a traumatic life-changing event that affected us to our core,” she said. “Yet, in spite of all the many challenges we as a class experienced from start to finish, we are still here. We survived. We are indeed conquerors.”
Amauri Espinal, who was part of the Class of 2020, marveled at what a long journey it had been for him.
“I had the virtual ceremony last year, but it’s not the same as being here with your fellow classmates and colleagues, as well as the faculty.”
Espinal served two tours of duty in Iraq for the Army and has been working for the last three years for the New York City Department of Veteran Services. He said his GSS degree has helped him with his clinical and engagement skills with clients.
“Whether it’s dealing with a problem-solving approach or a clinical approach, it opened me up to getting more information from the client while doing self-reflection as well,” he said.
For graduates like Brittany Boudrea, also Class of 2020, it wasn’t so much a welcome back as it was an introduction to Rose Hill; she attended classes at Fordham’s Westchester campus. Boudrea works as an adolescent clinician for High Focus Centers in Norwalk, Connecticut.
“I never thought I’d get to walk across the stage here; it’s always been my dream for me to get a master’s at Fordham,” she said, adding that her degree helped her fulfill a calling.
“I’ve had past experiences that have helped guide me through life. I really want to advocate for people who can’t advocate for themselves,” she said.
Debra McPhee, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School of Social Service, urged graduates to approach their work knowing that the COVID-19 pandemic has both revealed and exacerbated our society’s systemic inequities.
“If there is one gift of this period of tremendous loss and unrest, let it be a new understanding that accepting responsibility for the health, welfare, and equity of our fellow citizens has never been more critical,” she said.
Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
Sunday’s in-person ceremony was a first for Tyler Stovall, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, who joined Fordham in June 2020 and had only presided over virtual ceremonies up until then.
Stovall said that the graduates would also be dealing with their own firsts and their own unprecedented challenges as they are “graduating into a world that is still in a very uncertain place.”
“It’s a world in which you are going to help make that difference in terms of how work is done, how research is done, how people work together to make a new and hopefully, better world,” he said.
“Your impact is going to be immediate. It’s going to be dramatic.”
Nicole Rizzo, who graduated in 2021 with a master’s in health administration, could relate to the immediacy. She credited the degree with a promotion to a senior administrative assistant at Northwell Health.
“I wanted to further my career, and this program was awesome because it’s only one year,” she said.
“I was able to get my degree, and now I’m off getting promotions; it’s great.”
For Tzu-Ching Wu and Michelle Lamb, both 2020 graduates from the master’s in cybersecurity program, the ceremony was a chance to reconnect after they had started their program in person and then had to pivot to virtual learning due to the pandemic.
“It feels good to be here to see your academic goals come to fruition and see your peers once again,” Lamb said, adding that she was drawn to the program because she wanted a chance to make a difference.
“Fordham’s program had a great reputation. After speaking with Dr. Hayajneh (director of the M.S. in Cybersecurity program) I thought that the University would be a great fit for me,” she said.
“I thought it was a great investment in myself and it did give me the tools I needed to work in the cybersecurity field and do what I love and help people.”
Graduate School of Education
The Sunday ceremony for the Graduate School of Education was also the first for José Luis Alvarado, Ph.D., who started as dean in July.
Alvarado praised graduates for their ability to quickly adjust to remote learning and other challenges of the pandemic.
“Without a doubt, each of you was placed in a tough situation. Yet we stand here as a testament to your resilience and your tenacity,” he told them, adding that he looked forward to hearing about the impact they will have as educators.
Madison Cona, a 2020 graduate who earned a master’s in curriculum and teaching while teaching 7th and 8th-grade math at Great Hollow Middle School in Smithtown, New York, found that the pandemic collided with her studies in dramatic fashion, as she contracted COVID-19 during the spring semester, which she completed virtually.
“I was doing a project, it was my day to actually present to the class, and I was in the doctor’s office on Facetime with my class. It was a scary time, but everyone was really supportive and flexible,” she said.
“Fordham definitely gave me the hands-on skills that I needed to work in the classroom. Everything that I did at Fordham was applicable and I brought that in. Getting kids up and moving, classroom management, how to use manipulatives to teach students math—they were all real-world skills that I took with me.”
Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham, spoke at each ceremony. At the GSE ceremony, he told graduates about his father’s cousin, who taught first grade for over 50 years. At her wake, one of her former students told him, “Your cousin gave me the gift of reading, and therefore gave me the world.”
He told the group of educators that they have that same calling. “You unlock the power of stories for your children and students, you nurture dreams and dreamers, you feel called to help the forgotten find their voices, to tell their stories,” he said.
“You have been heroes when no one was looking, and you are men and women after God’s own heart.”
School of Professional and Continuing Studies
Gzim Hasandjekic, a Bronx native who graduated with a master’s of science in real estate from PCS in 2020, had already earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Fordham College at Rose Hill in 2018. The degrees have proven invaluable, he said, to his current job as development manager for Propco Holdings, a Bronx-based company that builds affordable housing units in the Bronx.
Hasandjekic’s parents immigrated to the U.S. from Albania, and he is the first in his family to earn a college degree. His father was a porter who cleaned bathrooms, and his mother was a stay-at-home mom.
“We struggled a lot, growing up. But I have a good job now, thank God, thanks to my parents’ sacrifices,” he said.
“I’m really doing it for them, more than anything, just so they can see me walk across the stage and receive my diploma. It’s a huge deal for my family.”
Khamat Gning, a PCS graduate from Senegal who earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2020, marveled at how not too long ago, his knowledge of the field was extremely limited, and now he is completing an accelerated master’s degree in cybersecurity this fall.
“In my country, my major was education, but I loved information systems. At the beginning, it was not easy; everything was new to me,” he said.
“I had to make sure I passed all my classes, which I did. I never failed one class. I’m honored today to celebrate the commencement ceremony for PCS.”
The class was praised by their student speaker, Margaret J. Burke, who graduated from PCS in 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work and a year later earned an MSW at the Graduate School of Social Service. The eleventh of 12 children and only the second child to complete her college degree, she earned her G.E.D. at age 50 and knew then that she wanted to go to college.
“I literally cried on my first day. I just couldn’t believe I was here,” she said, choking up, as the audience applauded.
Social work was not what she originally planned to study, but when she arrived for that first class, the notion of approaching social work through the lens of trauma resonated deeply with her because of the personal struggles she’d faced.
“I was able to process grief and eventually heal, as it validated many of my feelings. It was cathartic and empowering, all at the same time,” she said.
“I guess I exemplify a PCS student: mature, older with lived experience, someone who came to Fordham to add to their education toward starting a new career. Fordham was able to help each of us see our experience, even our adverse experiences, from a universal perspective, helping us turn all those experiences into viable skills and insights we can use to help others on their journey, enabling all of us to soar to new heights.”
—Photos by Dana Maxson, Tom Stoelker, Chris Taggart, and Patrick Verel
—Reporting by Patrick Verel, Kelly Kultys, Adam Kaufman, Taylor Ha, and Gina Vergel