York College Celebrates Commencement 2013 with Largest Class to Date
First, at 1046, it was the 46 year-old college’s largest graduation class thus far; secondly, it was the first time in many years that graduates sat out in the elements without a tent, and lastly, an elected official ripped up his speech without delivering it.
U.S. Senator Charles Schumer is a favorite graduation guest at York and his speech is always well received.
The senator usually tells the graduates and their families about a tax credit he succeeded in passing that allows them to write off $2,500 worth of tuition from their taxes for every year the student is in college. Following that, Schumer who is quite the raconteur, usually proceeds to tell the story of how he passed up a post-graduation trip to Europe to stay home with his sweetheart, only to watch her go off on a similar trip and return with a new love and how much like “a schmuck” he felt.
But this year he departed from the script. He talked about the tax credit again, and then he did something truly amazing.
“It is hot,” he said of the 92-degree scorcher. “So I am going to give you another gift (in addition to the tax news).” With that, the veteran senator held the pages of his lengthy speech aloft, and ripped the document into four squares. The diverse graduates were jubilant. Indeed some gave him a standing ovation. It was a gallant gesture. However, he wasn’t done. The senator then stepped into the audience and handed a third of the aggregated pages to each of four rows of graduates to take a piece and pass the rest down the row.
It was a delightfully dramatic moment that probably made him the hero of the day to the sun-crisped graduates and their families.
The day was special for numerous other reasons starting with a color guard formation, performed for the very first time, by York College students in the ROTC program. The program, launched last fall, was the first to roll out since CUNY reinstated ROTC after nearly 50 years.
In all previous years the color guard honor was the prefecture of members of the Jamaica-based National Guard outpost; but the York students were perfection.
The ceremony was also poignant for the fact that it was opened by founding professor, Dr. Samuel Hux (English/and the Department of History and Philosophy) who is retiring.
Thankfully, Professor Hux, a favorite of thousands of students and his colleagues, is not yet ready to give up York completely. He will return as an adjunct.
Dr. Charles Coleman, another long-term favorite English professor, is also retiring; but he too will return at some point to teach as an adjunct.
The Commencement speaker, Johnny C. Taylor, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, delivered a stirring message.
“Appreciate, as you graduate today, the power that you have,” he told them. “Knowledge is power. Success is yours. You must go seize it. Use this degree and go change the world. Enjoy your lives, find a way….”
Gloriana B.Waters, Vice Chancellor for Human Resources Management at CUNY, used the opportunity to commend York not just on the successful graduating class, but for saving the day, during the Hurricane Sandy crisis last fall. York housed nearly 1,000 evacuees from the Rockaways and Howard Beach areas.
“You’ve got true grit,” she said, referencing the John Wayne film title. “York served the city in its finest hour; so dare to be wise and dare to be strong…York strong, CUNY strong.”
Kafui K. Kouakou, trustee and University Student Senate Chairperson and York alum, was also on the speakers’ roster and encouraged the graduates to continue their education beyond York.
He needn’t have worried. Many are off to graduate schools across the country to pursue PhDs, Master’s degrees, MSWs, and Pharm Ds, while several others are applying to medical school.
Student Government president, Shirley Jackson, admonished her fellow-graduates to not just take the degree and run, but to “pay it forward” and help future students.
“We are in a position, you and I, to make sure we are not the exception, but the norm,” said Jackson, a non-traditional student. “Do everything in your power to protect the legacy of York College. We are going to dare to ask the hard questions of ‘why not.’”
The valedictorian, Debra Whorms, who came to the United States with her mother and siblings five years ago from St. Ann, Jamaica, gave a stirring address about overcoming trepidation and a marginalized hometown, to succeed beyond her imaginings.
“When I walked out of my last test at York College I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of accomplishment,” said Whorms, who majored in Chemistry. “I am here to remind us, we can accomplish any other goal.”
The valedictorian with the ready smile, will be applying to MD/PD programs and recalled her lack of confidence when she did poorly on the SAT Exams.
“I wondered if I was smart enough,” she said. “I was doubtful of my ability. But I did not want to be a statistic. I wanted to be the change I wanted. “
Whorms, the first member of her family to go to college, also talked about the hopelessness she saw amongst her peers in her rural community in Jamaica, and how persistence won the day for her.
“Class of 2013,” she said. “We stepped outside the confines of expectations. Let us not allow society to determine for us. We are ready to conquer the world. [But] we are not what we have accomplished. We are what we have overcome!”
President Marcia V. Keizs, praised the graduates for their tenacity.
“The Class of 2013 spent their college years living up to the Churchillian mantra, “’This is no time for ease and comfort. It is time to dare and endure,’” said Dr. Keizs, quoting the former British prime minister known for his no-nonsense leadership during World War II. “You dared to dream and you endured all the hardships you needed to endure on the path to fulfilling your dream of a college degree.”
Among the many visitors at the Commencement, held on May 31, were numerous alumni including members of the Classes of 1973, 1978 – which included Mayor Wayne Hall of Hempstead and his wife, Derrah, a classmate he married two days after their graduation; and the Classes of 1983, 1988 and 1993. They were feted at a luncheon where a member of each class shared his/her York College experience. They were joined by numerous early faculty members, including the aforementioned Hux and Coleman as well as Professors Robert Parmet, Howard Ruttenberg and Gloria Waldman and Jack Schlein.