In These Chaotic Times, I Found Hope At A Graduation Ceremony

A broadly smiling 2022 graduate receives her diploma from the chair of her department at St. Peter’s University commencement ceremony. A large banner with the university’s name hangs in the background.

Like the rest of the country, I mourned the unspeakable carnage this past week that snuffed out the lives of 19 school children and two of their teachers in Uvalde, Texas. With the world in so much chaos, it is difficult not to despair. What shored my hope was attending the commencement ceremony last week at my undergraduate alma mater, St. Peter’s University in New Jersey. Each graduate who crossed the stage represented a vision of hope, a promise of the future.

I could barely contain my proud tears as I surveyed the veritable League of Nations that is the 2022 graduating class. Their families have come to this country from India, China, the Philippines, Africa, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and elsewhere across Latin America, proving once again that the vitality of our country thrives through its immigrant roots.

Many of the students wore white sashes that said, “First Generation,” which meant they are the first in their families to graduate from college.

I was at the commencement to receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from St. Peter’s, founded 150 years ago by the Jesuit order of priests. In my day, the student body consisted largely of the children and grandchildren of immigrant families from Italy, Ireland, and Poland. Marching to the thrum of “Pomp and Circumstance,” I remembered how I felt those many years ago being the first in my immediate family to graduate from college, as my proud parents and siblings watched from a distant viewing stand.

Judith Valente in cap and gown processes out of PNC Arts Center in New Jersey with faculty members after receiving an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from St. Peter’s University in New Jersey.

Graduation speaker Rev. DeForest Soaries Jr., New Jersey’s former Secretary of State and founder of Corporate Community Connections, which brings corporations into under-served communities, reminded the 2022 graduates that their true work in life will always be service.

He asked them to never forget the Jesuit motto “to be a person for others.”

Valedictorian Jesse Bahia Resurreccion recalled how her mother, born in the Philippines, worked seven days a week to help support their family. Her parents told Jesse they doubted they could afford to send her to college, so she picked up a tennis racket, practiced every morning starting at 6 a.m., and eventually won an athletic scholarship.

“I am here to represent the voices of inner-city children,” Jesse said. “My dream is for inner city children to look at me and to be able to see themselves in me.”

Jesse Resurreccion understands what it means to be “a person for others.”

I had the privilege of being asked by St. Peter’s to write a poem commemorating the university’s 150th anniversary. I tried to pay homage to the many professors and administrators who impacted my life. I also wanted to reflect the enduring contribution of this institution to the lifeblood of Jersey City, NJ and the promise of hope it offers its students, and the hope that its graduates in turn offer to our world.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, urges us find God in all things and to look for the sacred in the everyday. To reflect the ever-unfolding, ever-renewing mission of St. Peter’s, and as a nod to its Jesuit founder, I titled the poem “Dawn Rising.”

Dawn Rising

The steel girders, asphalt streets and beechwoods

breaking through concrete sidewalks taught us we were strong.

We came across the Turnpike, Bayonne Bridge, Pulaski Skyway,

from the Heights, the Hook, the West Side, the Square.

The courage of our immigrant forefathers, perseverance of our African

ancestors coursing through our blood. Propelled forward by parents

who laid bricks, poured concrete, baked bread, sewed hems,

drove buses, worked the cash register and the assembly line.

My mother resting her tired feet after an eight-hour shift

hosing down cucumbers on a factory floor. My father

steering his Mack truck up Montgomery Street, dropping me off

on my first day of classes, his calloused hand waving

goodbye from the windshield as I sailed toward a new landscape,

a geography of the mind: of Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics,

of Dante and Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Kant. The Greek alphabet,

sonnets, French verbs and equations strung across a blackboard.

The spirit of Ignatius billowing over McDermott, MacMahon,

Pope, O’Toole and Dineen. Across the Pauw Wow, Pavan,

Peacock and Argus Eyes. Prodding us to see God

in the hot dog man on the corner of Glenwood, the waitress

serving chili at the VIP Diner, the Boulevard bus driver,

passengers on the PATH. Finding the sacred in haggard trees,

dusty park benches, the cacophony of car horns,

the sparrow perched on a telephone wire. Our professors

grinding out their daily lesson plans, wading through term papers:

James Conniff. John Benson. George Yanitelli. Eileen Poiani.

Mary and Larry Pontrelli. Bob Kennedy. Bill Schmidt.

Doing it ad majorem dei gloria. Finding a listening ear,

an arm around the shoulder in the President’s Office,

Campus Ministry, Counseling Center, Dean of Students Office:

Victor Yanitelli. Ray Martignoni. Joe Kelly. Larry Malnig. Ed Heavey.

Ed Reuter. Barbara Chryst. Modeling what it means to be a person for others.

Bless them all, alive in me still. What were we seeking? Knowledge? Wisdom?

What we received is the gift of transformation. A diploma in love,

the heart’s yearning to heal, to hope, to build, to create, to teach, to inspire,

to transform the world’s impenetrable darknesses into the light of new dawns.

A breezway extends across John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City, NJ with lettering saying, St. Peter’s University, connecting some of the school’s signature red brick buildings.

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