More than 3,100 students donned their caps and gowns and switched their tassels from right to left at Queens College’s 92nd commencement, marking the end of a long journey. Approximately 10,000 parents, loved ones, alumni, faculty and staff joined them proudly at the campus quad in celebration.
“This is a phenomenal moment,” said college president Felix V. Matos Rodriguez. “It has been a great year and we’re celebrating. This is one of the best classes to ever graduate in the history of Queens College.”
In the last two years, 10 students from the CUNY school have received the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to conduct research or teach abroad. This year, two students were named Salk Scholars, and will head to medical school after performing significant scientific research as undergraduate students.
Matos Rodriguez also acknowledged many students who faced distinct hardships in their education, including veterans, first-generation college students, and those who worked while going to school.
The man who hired Matos Rodriguez to run Queens College also spoke at Thursday’s ceremony about the great potential the students possessed.
CUNY chancellor James Milliken said alumni from the city university have gone on to build great careers and communities, and have ensured that New York City remains the financial, business, arts, media and cultural capital of the country. Now, he said, it was the graduates’ turn.
“This is the day when you start to prove all of us right,” Milliken said. “You too will show this city, state and country that it has always been wise to invest in nurturing the talents of our most deserving students. I know you will deliver on that promise.”
He called CUNY a “special university with a special mission,” especially with its inclusivity and diversity. Milliken urged students to set their sights high and to fight for their goals.
“You have the ability to change your community and your world for the better,” he said.
Queens College graduates were joined by a number of elected officials, including Senator Chuck Schumer, Borough President Melinda Katz and Councilman Rory Lancman. Schumer called the college one of the finest institutions of higher learning not just in the state, but in the entire country.
He recounted memories of when he and his wife watched his daughter Jessica walk across the stage at graduation. He said it brought back memories of when she was starting off in kindergarten to her teenage years, all the way to graduating and becoming an adult.
“You think back to the tough times, it’s never easy raising kids,” Schumer said. “It was one of the greatest days of our lives.”
He told the graduates dressed in black gowns that they were departing with three advantages: receiving a great degree from college, having families that support them through thick and thin, and being the first generation to grow up surrounded by and familiar with new technology.
“You were born into it, technology is to your generation as water is to a fish,” Schumer said. “You’ve been swimming in it your whole lives.”
The commencement speaker at Thursday’s ceremony was Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. Walker, who also received an honorary degree from the college, asked the graduates to stand and thank their families for helping them reach this point.
“Each of us owes a special debt of gratitude on days like today to those unsung heroes in our lives,” Walker said. “None of us walks our journey alone. Today’s milestone, what you have achieved today, belongs as much to these people as it belongs to you.”
Looking into the crowd, Walker said the country looks very different than when he graduated in 1982. In fact, he said, the country will be even more diverse in the future and will resemble New York City more and more.
“When I look out at this quad and see the faces of accomplished, talented, young people, I see the American narrative,” Walker said. “I see the American story in its many beautiful ways.”
He told his story of being born in a small town at a charity hospital and raised by a single mother. Walker said he was never guaranteed anything, not a spot in college, graduation from a top-ranked law school or even success on Wall Street.
When he entered the philanthropy profession, Walker said many skeptics and cynics said he wouldn’t be a good fit. Many told him that he should set his sights lower because he didn’t have a private education or work in the halls of elite places.
“Every step of the way, I was faced with inequality in many of its forms,” Walker said. “I would guess that this is something many of you graduates have experienced at some point in your life.”
Back home, six of his cousins spent significant time in prison. One cousin even hung himself in jail.
“They found themselves caught in the same cycle of despair and injustice that has trapped so many young black and brown men and women in this country,” he said. “Increasingly, there are entrenched systems at work in this country that make it harder for us to go from aspiration to achievement.”
That’s why days like Thursday, he said, were so special and precious. He said he felt optimistic because institutions like CUNY work to level the playing field and “disrupt those systems of injustice.”
He implored graduates not to throw away their shots at starting a business, voting or participating in their communities to make them more equal, fair and just. He said people all over this country have been courageous in the face of inequality, and now they have an opportunity to work for justice.
“There is so much work to be done in the world, and the world today needs your skills and talents more than ever,” Walker said. “Your work begins today. I can’t wait to see what you accomplish next.”