Spring Commencement 2024 Recap, Photos And Highlights – Press Room - 91 State University


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Spring Commencement 2024 Recap, Photos and Highlights

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A graduate smiles and holds up their hands in the shape of a heart

‘You did not accept that things are not possible because they are hard to achieve…’

With a blizzard of confetti, the 91 State University Class of 2024 celebrated its graduation on Monday, May 13, a joyous occasion at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, and one especially savored as many receiving their undergraduate degrees were among the cohort whose high school graduations were disrupted four years ago by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Montclair graduates included many who are the first in their families to attend college and earn degrees, including the Povolo quintuplets – Victoria, Ludovico, Ashley, Michael and Marcus – who made New Jersey history as they graduated from the same college at the same time, walking across the dais one after the other. “Being first gen and graduating together for us is definitely a monumental thing,” said Ashley. “There’s an immense amount of pride.”

Two Commencement exercises – in the morning and the afternoon – were held to celebrate an anticipated 3,648 graduates from 13 colleges and schools that make up 91 State University. The graduates hail from 26 states and eight countries, with more than 860 earning advanced degrees. President Jonathan Koppell encouraged the graduates to stay optimistic in their ability to make change in the world and to resist the urge to vilify or dehumanize those with opposing views.

“I’m deeply concerned with the state of the world, but you guys keep the optimistic flame within me burning,” Koppell said. “You reached this day having overcome challenges. You did not accept that things are not possible because they are hard to achieve…I urge you not to accept that the world cannot be made a better place.”

The stands were full of proud families all day, with some graduates wearing specially designed stoles highlighting their status as the first in their families to earn a college degree, their experiences as student leaders, their participation in research and other achievements.

For the day’s first celebration, families began to arrive just after sunrise. Among the first, the grandparents of Audiology doctoral graduate Sean Kleczkowski, who along with 35 PhD and AuD candidates were hooded as part of the ceremonies. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see my son earn his doctorate degree,” said his mother Shannon Gibbons. “I wanted front-row seats.”

The stage was set for a special day of celebrations when Koppell welcomed graduates and guests by saying, “Because some families take this whole teamwork idea a little more seriously than others, we have what I would call a group of extremists who will be walking across the stage,” Koppell said, in introducing the Povolo quintuplets.

Koppell congratulated the quints’ parents, their father, Paolo, and mother, Silvia, who recently joined Montclair as part of the custodial services team. “That is a serious flock of Red Hawks,” he said.

In the stands, the Povolos’ invited guests included the volunteers who helped care for the quintuplets as babies, born on the Fourth of July 2002. “I always hoped I would be alive when they graduated from high school,” said 90-year-old Beverly Ziso. “I was pushing my luck for college, but here I am.”

Montclair’s commitment to making the world a better place was highlighted throughout the two ceremonies. “To me the most important lesson of today is the power of belief in the possibility of tomorrow – the possibility that things can get better,” Koppell told the graduates.

Among the students involved in service and leadership was Mariana Luna-Martinez, the Montclair student trustee who capped off her college career with a Biology degree and countless hours of community service through the Bonner Leader Program. She also studied in Italy, learning about its health-care system and in Panama, assisting physicians as part of the Global Medical Brigade.

Richard Steiner-Otoo, the Student Government Association president, who earned a degree in Geographic, Environmental and Urban Studies, spoke to the Class of 2024: “As we embark on our separate paths, let’s carry with us the belief that the good that we put into the world will make it just a little bit better than we found it, one act of kindness at a time.”

Morning Ceremony Photo Gallery

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Vice President for Student Development and Campus Life Dawn Meza Soufleris acknowledged the students who performed community service; who worked full or part time; those for whom English is not their first language; who overcame medical, physical or mental health challenges; veterans, active duty military, reservists, members of the National Guard and public safety officers. Cheers were heard as many stood to be acknowledged as the first in their families to graduate from college.

First-generation students Yhimara Sarango and Emily Vasquez, who earned degrees in Family Science and Human Development, wore personalized stoles designed to acknowledge their achievements as first-generation graduates – their families coming from Ecuador and Mexico, respectively.

“I dedicate everything to them,” said Vasquez, who presented her first guest ticket to her 9-year-old cousin to show her what is possible. Added Sarango about her parents’ pride: “To have their daughter graduate in the United States is one of their biggest accomplishments.”

Koppell acknowledged the challenges many students faced in the years it took to get to Commencement and the people who supported them through difficult times.

“To me the most important lesson of today is the power of belief in the possibility of tomorrow – the possibility that things can get better. Each of you got here today because you pictured walking across that stage,” Koppell told the graduates. “You had it in your mind’s eye, and then you made it happen. You made it happen notwithstanding the fact that you had doubts, you had setbacks, unexpected things that could have deterred you, could have stopped you.”

That was especially poignant for Tony Tenasse, who earned a degree in Physical Education and wore a personal stole in memory of his parents. “I never gave up,” he said, “especially after they passed away, I’m here today because of hard work and commitment.”

The afternoon’s student speaker Lanaye Kemp, who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Music Therapy, shared that after being diagnosed with tendonitis, leaving her unable to play instruments, she thought her career was over before it even began. “With a lot of support, I was able to overcome this, and I realized that I — and all of us here — have that power to overcome these challenges.”

Afternoon Ceremony Photo Gallery

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Iliana Woodhull, 41, who earned a degree in Family Science and Human Development, overcame years of trauma to achieve her American and academic dreams. “My mother is here, my family. Everyone in Mexico is watching [the livestream] as well. I’m holding back tears, I’m so honored. After all that has happened to me, this is huge.”

Rosalyn Coppola, 72-year-old grandmother, finally finished what she started 53 years ago when she first began taking college classes. She received a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies through the University’s Degree Completion Program.

“It is never too late to get involved and expose yourself to new people and experiences,” observed the morning’s student speaker, Sophia Cara Velocci, who received a degree in Nutrition and Food Science. “Becoming a Red Hawk and embracing all that our university has to offer has truly turned my college experience around for the better. Montclair helped me find my purpose.”

In the morning, Joseph Lepinski danced across the Commencement stage to receive his degree in Physical Education, a homage to his Jersey Joe TikTok fame, which originated in his dorm room. Wearing huge yellow slippers, Lepinski unveiled himself as the school’s mascot Rocky the Red Hawk and a member of Team Rocky.

Red Hawk football captain Nicholas Burgess and offensive lineman Cameron Siebert received Bachelor of Science degrees in Business Management and Accounting, respectively, and will return to campus this summer to work on their MBAs.

Leading the procession for both ceremonies was Grand Marshal Rich Wolfson, who carried the University mace, an ornamental staff symbolizing the University and the President’s authority. Wolfson is retiring after 14 years as AFT Local president and 42 years on the faculty in the Department of Teaching and Learning.

The morning ceremony included graduates from the College for Community Health, College for Education and Engaged Learning, College of Humanities and Social Sciences and University College.

In the afternoon, graduates from the College of the Arts, School of Nursing, College of Science and Mathematics and Feliciano School of Business had their opportunity to shine. The ceremony also welcomed members of the Class of 1974, who were celebrating their 50th Reunion.

Before the confetti, and what’s become a traditional ending with a Commencement selfie with the University president known as the “Koppellfie,” graduates were inspired to fly higher. “Live life with passion and confidence,” Koppell said, “but also with empathy and humility, seize the day.”

The ceremony was recorded and can be seen on the .

Story by Staff Writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren. Photos by University Photographer Mike Peters, and John J. LaRosa and Aristide Economopoulos for 91 State University.