At Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, N.Y., an unusual academic year required an unusual Commencement.
In the last three semesters, the Mount community rose to the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. After a necessary switch to online courses in March of 2020, students saw the return of face-to-face learning in the fall. The Mount community did its best to keep friends, coworkers, and professors safe by adhering to proper safety guidelines.
For graduating seniors, their reward was an in-person Commencement with a reduced, but very enthusiastic, crowd.
The Class of 2021 – which includes more than 500 graduates – was recognized over the course of two ceremonies. On Friday, May 21, Nursing students were honored, and on Saturday, May 22, all other majors walked across the Commencement stage.
But there were also dozens of Class of 2020 Nursing graduates who were recognized on Friday, May 21 as well. And on Sunday, May 23, the other 2020 grads finally enjoyed a live Commencement, making up for the virtual graduation they celebrated last year.
Students were seated with their two guests in socially-distanced groups of three chairs throughout the Dominican Center Field.
Of the 523 Class of 2021 graduates, the college awarded 105 master's degrees and 418 bachelor's degrees. More than 170 students earned degrees in Nursing and related fields, and another 70 earned degrees in Business.
The graduating students hailed from eight states: California, Connecticut, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington.
After years of acting as Master of Ceremonies at the Mount's Commencement celebrations, James Finn Cotter, the college's longest serving professor, retired in September of 2020. On Friday, the honor was bestowed upon Christine Berté, chair of the School of Nursing and director of Graduate Nursing Programs. On Saturday and Sunday, George Abaunza, vice president for Academic Affairs, took the helm.
The Friday ceremony was presided over by Michael Horodyski, chair of the Board of Trustees of Mount Saint Mary College. The Saturday ceremony was presided over by Anthony Liotti, vice chair of the Board of Trustees of the college. The Sunday ceremony was presided over by Charles Frank, former chair of the Board of Trustees of the Mount.
The invocations were given by Fr. Gregoire Fluet, college chaplain and director of Campus Ministry. Fr. Fluet had two joyous occasions on Saturday, May 22, as he was celebrating both Commencement and his 39th year of priesthood.
Honoring the Next Generation of Nurses
On Friday, May 21, the Mount Nursing Classes of 2020 and 2021 celebrated the college's first-ever combined Nurse Pinning, White Coat ceremony, and graduation ceremony.
Dr. Jason N. Adsit, president of the college, told the Nursing graduates about the impact nurses have had on him personally. His mother was a nurse and, even at 90 years old, she still keeps her diploma and nurse pin at her bedside.
Dr. Adsit also discussed how nurses saved the life of his youngest son, Ronan, who spent six weeks in the neonatal unit when he was born.
"It was the nurses who sat with me every night, prayed with me, and cried with me as I held his little hand," he said. "The nurses were the ones who figured out what was wrong. That little boy turns 10 in October. Your work matters. Don't ever forget that."
The graduating students then heard from keynote speaker Susan LaRocco, dean of the School of Nursing. Her advice to graduates: "Keep the patient in the center of everything" you do as a nurse.
"Compassionate care is a core value we have, whether as the primary care provider or as a staff nurse," said LaRocco. "I challenge you to...treat everyone as they would want to be treated. Be sensitive to the cultural and religious differences of your patients, and provide the care that they want and that they need."
In a few weeks, LaRocco will be returning home to Boston after three years of serving Mount Saint Mary College as Nursing dean. Her tireless work and dedication to the college will be missed, noted Abaunza and many of her other coworkers.
As the Nursing graduates approached the Commencement stage, their two guests came with them. Before receiving their diploma from Dr. Adsit, the students were pinned by their family and friends. The nursing pin represents "a new facet in the personal and professional lives of these graduating students," said Berté. "It symbolizes...their rite of passage into the professional world of nursing."
Graduates who earned a master's degree or post master's degree certificate received their white coat from their loved ones. The white coat represents the graduates' knowledge and dedication to the medical profession.
Berté thanked these newly-coated professionals, who have been on the frontlines in the battle against COVID-19 for more than a year.
"These are the RNs that were taking care of patients in ICUs, long-term care facilities, and other healthcare areas during this challenging time," she said. "While they were doing this, they had the perseverance to continue their education...Mount Saint Mary College wishes to acknowledge you and thank you for your efforts and congratulate you on this academic achievement in a time that truly challenged our profession."
After all the Nursing grads were recognized, LaRocco and Berté honored several students for excellence in their studies and dedication to the field.
- School of Nursing Leadership Award: Sean Leuschner of Carmel, N.Y.
- School of Nursing Clinical Excellence Award: Annette Martinez of the Bronx. N.Y.
- Perseverance Award: Stephanie Cataldo of Mountainside, N.J.
- General Excellence in Nursing Award: Kelly Giana of Berlin, Conn.
- Spirit of Nursing Award: Toni Ann DeRose of Highland Mills, N.Y.
- School of Nursing Leadership Award: Sydney Natkiel of Salisbury Mills, N.Y.
- Mu Epsilon Chapter of Sigma Theta International Nursing Honor Society Award: Emily Dee of Garden City South, N.Y. (May 2021), Benjamin Hayes of Fishkill, N.Y. (December 2020), and Nicole Gray (May 2020)
- Sister Leona DeBoer Award: Sadhana Subramanian of New Windsor, N.Y. (May 2021); Benjamin Hayes of Fishkill, N.Y. (December 2020); Ann Murray of Garrison, N.Y. (May 2020)
Also at the ceremony, the Student Government Association (SGA) Excellence in Teaching Award for 2021 was presented to Lynette DeBellis, instructor of Nursing. This award recognizes a full-time professor who the students believe goes above and beyond in their role as a professor and in their commitment to student success. Earlier this month, DeBellis also earned the Mount's annual DAISY Foundation Nurse Faculty Award for her dedication to the Mount and the community, as well as being named a Top 20 Nurse in the region at the 2021 Excellence in Nursing Awards, hosted by Hudson Valley Magazine.
The SGA Excellence in Teaching Award for 2020 was presented to Linda Kelly, assistant professor of Nursing. Both awards were presented by Matthew Gallo of Clark, N.J., a member of the Class of 2021 and Senior Class Senator in the SGA.
Sending off the Class of 2021
From Business to Education, the remaining members of the Class of 2021 and their families proudly took to the Dominican Center Field on Saturday, May 22 for their Commencement ceremony.
Dr. Adsit congratulated the seniors and their families on a job well done. Making the accomplishment even more impressive, he said, was the fact that the graduates thrived in college despite the hardships caused by the pandemic.
"You have lived through a world-wide historical event," said Dr. Adsit. "This [pandemic] is something people will be reading about hundreds of years from now. And you did it with grace, and grit, and determination."
Jake Kosack '18, a member of the Mount Saint Mary College Board of Trustees, encouraged the students to take what they have learned at Mount Saint Mary College and use it to make the world a better place.
"Commencement...is always misunderstood as an ending, and although this scene is ending, the film is just getting started," Kosack said. "Your life is a movie and you're the lead. It is up to you to go out there and win Best Picture."
He added, "The path you take from here is the first step to a life that you choose to live...In our lifetimes, we aren't granted a right to happiness. We are given the right to pursue happiness. And that is a responsibility that will only fall on you...it is up to you to make the American Dream [into] the American reality."
Edward Arnold of Southampton, N.Y., president of the Mount's Student Government Association (SGA), challenged his fellow graduates to continuously improve themselves.
"Our commitment to service, leadership, and determination is what brings us here together as one: Mount Saint Mary College graduates, Class of 2021," Arnold said. "The relationships we have not only with one another, but with our faculty and staff, will last forever. Use them to your advantage, grab life by the horns, and begin this journey with no fear."
Arnold added that the same tenacity that got the graduates through college will serve them well as they move on to the next chapters of their lives.
"The skills...you have applied at the Mount will be crucial to your advancement in the real world, whether it's staying up late to finish a proposal, staying late with your clients, students, or taking extra care of your patients," he said. "You all are born for these moments. Stick to your plan, trust your gut, and become the greatest version of yourself."
After the graduates walked across the Commencement stage and received their diplomas from Dr. Adsit, the ceremony ended with a benediction by Fr. Fluet.
"May what you have learned at Mount Saint Mary College allow you, through perseverance and in joy, to journey from hope to clear vision in your lives," he said.
Class of 2020: A celebration months in the making
Like the rest of the world, the Mount Saint Mary College Class of 2020 was blindsided by the COVID-19 pandemic. Mount professors worked valiantly to move their courses online and, for everyone's safety, the 2020 Commencement ceremony was hosted virtually as well.
One year later, the Mount's 2020 graduates finally got the celebration they deserved. Nursing graduates joined their 2021 counterparts on Friday, while Sunday's ceremony was devoted to the remaining non-Nursing 2020 grads.
After a year living and working in a world rocked by COVID-19, Sunday's ceremony was part Commencement, part reunion for the 2020 Mount graduates.
Alexander Perlak of West Hempstead, N.Y., Senior Class President of the Class of 2020, was pleased to see his classmates return to their alma mater to graduate in person.
"Within the first week of classes, we realized the Mount was a unique campus that allowed each and every one of us to succeed in our own special way," he said. "In our journeys, we made each experience a memory, and although our journey was cut short in March of 2020, our impact on the college is still one of the strongest yet."
Perlak added that it is often through adversity – such as the pandemic – that people grow the most.
"We have all overcome challenges to get to the point we are today, [but] it's not always about the challenge – more importantly, it's how we overcome it," said Perlak. "It may not have gone how we expected it to, but this is an achievement that we all did together...after this ceremony, we can all say we are Mount Saint Mary College graduates who finally walked the stage."