At Rutgers University Newark’s first in-person ceremony since 2019, speakers alluded to the challenges of the pandemic and a difficult political landscape. But they urged graduates to be the future of democracy and to work for the common good.
“It’s all of our collective will that will be needed to make our world a fair place in which to prosper together,” said Chancellor Nancy Cantor. “Yes, unity is my theme today, because we are back together, thankfully, even though we never really left each other.”
The ceremony, held at the Prudential Center in Newark, honored the class of 2022, made up of 2,425 undergraduate students, including 1,727 from New Jersey. A total of 224 students come from the city of Newark and 96 from the Greater Newark cities of Irvington, Orange, and West Orange. Of the undergraduates, 802 are the first generation in their families to attend college. There are 1,397 graduate students.
Keynote speaker Maria Hinojosa, a journalist who founded the Latino USA Network and won a Pulitzer Prize a week ago, reminded students that it is crucial to be heard and seen within a structure of power that can make them invisible.
“Own your power because you are the future, show yourself… Many of us, we are invisible in this country,” said Hinojosa, a Mexican immigrant who was one of the first Latin journalists on network news. “We are targeted with hate, from people who see us as a threat.”
She added half-jokingly, “Own your power, but don’t be a fool about it. I won’t say the other word. It starts with an “A”. You can disrupt and challenge but don’t be a ******.
Hinojosa also reassured the students that it’s okay if success comes slowly. “Things don’t always happen immediately,” she said.
She told the story of David Luis “Suave” Gonzales, the main character of her Pulitzer-winning podcast series, “Suave.” Hinojosa met him when she was invited to give a commencement speech at Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania in 1993. For nearly three decades, she kept in touch with Suave, who was sentenced to life for a crime he committed when he was 17.
“He was from the South Bronx, Puerto Rican, illiterate, charged with murder,” she said. “After seven times he got his GED. It took him sixteen years to get his graduate degree.”
Rutgers-Newark students possess the same courage, Hinojosa said — and it will be demanded by future employers and associates.
“We are looking for your hunger,” she said.
Hinojosa mentioned student speaker Rachel Hodge, who overcame many hardships and personal struggles to graduate and start a career as a social worker.
Hodge shared her story at the ceremony. “If you had asked me ten years ago what my life would be like today, I wouldn’t have had an answer,” she said. “Ten years ago I woke up in a car, sweaty, hopeless, homeless, struggling with an addiction and feeling defeated.”
“But in 10 years, I’ve become a mother, a survivor, a social work researcher, and soon to be a graduate of Rutgers-University Newark,” Hodge said. “Life’s struggles and sacrifices can be tomorrow’s blessings and successes.”
In addition to Hinojosa, who received an honorary Doctor of Letters, Wayne Meyer, who served as CEO of New Jersey Community Capital (NJCC), received an honorary degree for his advocacy of sustainable investment in New Jersey communities. Jersey, especially those that have seen chronic underinvestment.
Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka and Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway also spoke at the ceremony.
“Today is usually a time to celebrate individual effort and success. And while important, graduation isn’t just about individual achievement,” Baraka said. “This is about our collective success.”
“Unfortunately, we are at a time in American history where the individual has become more important than the collective,” he warned.
But he said he was confident graduates would look beyond their own well-being. “Your vision is so wide that you can see more than yourself,” he said.
Holloway stressed the importance of participating in civic and political life, quoting Adlai Stevenson II, former governor of Illinois and presidential candidate in the 1950s. “Your days are short here; it is the last of your springs. And now, in the serenity and tranquility of this beautiful place, touch the depths of truth, feel the hem of heaven… And remember when you leave why you came.
Photo caption: Student speaker Rachel Hodge addresses the crowd.