Gianni Carillo’s experience throughout the pandemic was a snapshot of the challenges teachers faced across the nation this past year. A childhood education major in the Class of 2021, Carillo was a student teacher and witnessed first-hand what it was like in the classroom for students and teachers adjusting to a new environment and technology.
“The pandemic was a challenge, getting to know the kids and seeing the struggles they go through each day,” Carillo said. “I think student teaching and all of my cooperating teachers paved a way for me to be successful, giving me different strategies to use.”
On Saturday morning, Carillo made his way down the aisle and toward the commencement stage. And as he waited in the Times Union Center, he reflected on the people who supported him in his journey at Saint Rose – his fellow members of the men’s soccer team and his mother and grandmother.
Graduates in the Classes of 2021 and 2020 were celebrated at the Times Union Center on Friday and Saturday (May 7 and 8) in three ceremonies, which were livestreamed for friends, family, and graduates who could not attend.
“I come from a single mother, so it means a lot to her being here today and always being there for me, pushing me and motivating me, as well as my grandma. … Being here today, I couldn’t have been here without the both of them and just love them so much,” Carillo said. “I am very thankful to be a men’s soccer player at Saint Rose. My coach, I am thankful for him. He brought me in after transferring and treated me like family. He really paved that path for me to go forward at this great school and find myself a home at SR.”
The ceremony for the Class of 2020 graduates on Saturday afternoon made good on the College’s promise to graduates last year that they would get the opportunity to walk across the commencement stage whenever COVID-19 guidelines allowed it.
“It’s very important,” said Zartash Syed ’20, who is currently enrolled in the School District Business Leader program while working for Capital Region BOCES but has waited a year to walk across the stage and be recognized for earning her MBA. “First, this is my first degree in the United States. And secondly, the most important thing is I can see my teachers, my professors. The professors, they are just like your parents, they are so good, so knowledgeable.”
More than 3,400 undergraduate and graduate students in the Classes of 2020 and 2021 have earned degrees or advanced certificates, although not all graduates were present. For graduates who couldn’t be at the Times Union Center, their names were read and scrolled across the screen at the end of the livestream.
Each graduate who was registered to attend was allowed two to four guests, depending on which ceremony they attended, as New York State guidelines capped attendance at 10% of the Times Union Center capacity. All graduates and guests had to show either proof of a full vaccination series, a negative COVID-19 test result, or proof of recovery from COVID-19 within the last three months.
Interim President Marcia White noted the challenges graduates faced during the pandemic and the resilience they demonstrated when college life changed in ways they’d never imagined.
“Your experience taught you things you didn’t want to know. It gave you gifts you didn’t want to see,” she said. “You accepted that sorrow and strife are a part of even a joyful life. That if it is impossible to go on as you were before, you go on as you never have. That is what we do. That is what Saint Rose graduates are made of. Today, we honor your resilience and strength of spirit.”
Commencement speeches were delivered by three alumni who demonstrate the Saint Rose strength of spirit. Each speaker has shown a commitment to scholarship, excellence, and serving the dear neighbor through their professional and personal pursuits.
On Friday, Dr. Cecily Wilson-Turner, Ed.D., the assistant superintendent for elementary instruction for the City School District of Albany and a 2007 Saint Rose advanced certificate program graduate, delivered the commencement address at the ceremony for graduate students in the Class of 2021. On Saturday morning, Edson Chipalo, a Ph.D. student in social work at the University of Alabama and 2017 Saint Rose graduate, spoke to undergraduates in the Class of 2021, and Jermaine Brookshire Jr., Esq., a Connecticut-based attorney, leader of a nonprofit organization that motivates and supports youth, and 2013 Saint Rose graduate, addressed undergraduate and graduate students in the Class of 2020.
Family and friends sat in two-person seating pods, as required by the commencement plan approved by the department of health under the New York State guidelines. But even the masks they were required to wear did not dampen the shouts of joy and pride as their graduates crossed the stage.
Speakers focused on the idea of resilience as well, with Wilson-Turner sharing advice based on her experiences as a longtime educator forced to navigate the reality of a pandemic in a large school system. She talked about the importance of leading through change no matter what field the graduates will work in.
“Your families, students, and clients will place their trust in you, and they will follow your lead. They will respond to challenges, difficulties, and change with the tools you give them and the model you show them,” Wilson-Turner said. “They will expect your impact to match your intentions. Better yet, they need your impact to match your intentions. They need you to hear their voice as you shape the path and goals for your work with them. They need you to see their experiences, interests, and hopes and build them into the classroom, business, or organization that will serve them. Own your intentions, your beliefs, your behavior, and your impact. Embrace the power that you have to build the capacity of others to leverage change and sustain the transformation.”
Chipalo shared his journey from Zambia, where he was raised in poverty by his grandparents, to Saint Rose, then Columbia, then the University of Alabama, where his primary research focuses on substance use and violence among refugees and immigrant populations with multifaceted mental health problems.
“Today, I am no longer confined by the walls of poverty because The College of Saint Rose offered a door of opportunity for me through access to education. My current academic success lies on the foundation of The College Saint Rose, and this will remain unchanged,” he said. “Saint Rose helped me to rewrite my story — from poverty to progress, from grass to grace, from being vulnerable to victor. The people of Saint Rose lived out their mission during my time here, which is reflected in our motto: ‘In thy light, we shall see the light.’ They gave me a light in the darkest moment of life, so that I can have a glimpse of a better future. Today, I stand here as living testimony – a symbol of hope – when you are hopeless, and you feel your future is bleak, persevere, as I did, as I know you can.”
The Class of 2020 also heard a personal story from Brookshire, who discussed moments of doubt and feeling stuck in his circumstances just after he graduated from Saint Rose in 2013. Then, he said, he embraced that his circumstances did not define his future.
“This man standing in front of you at 29, who grew up in a house where there was domestic violence, who knows the terror and toll of being in and out of homeless shelters, who knows the shame of making a few bad decisions as I try to navigate life, who knows the feeling of failure from when I roamed the campus with a 1.21 GPA in the second semester of my freshman year; who understands the weight of feeling like you need to live up to the hype is telling you emphatically as I stand in front of you as a corporate attorney, where only 5% of the over 1.3 million lawyers in this country are Black that, “Dreams do come true,” he said.
At the Saturday morning ceremony, the College also recognized strength of spirit with the awarding of the Carondelet Medal, the College’s highest honor, which is given to those who work in the community to enable others to move toward a fuller development of their personhood. Sister Mary Anne Heenan, CSJ ’68, past chair and current member of the Saint Rose Board of Trustees, was awarded the medal for solving problems with creativity and compassion and finding ways to multiply the impact of the solution. Heenan is a former school administrator who, in addition to the Saint Rose Board of Trustees, has served as a board member for numerous community organizations, including her current role as chair of the board of directors for St. Mary’s Hospital in Amsterdam, New York.
Although the masks and space between graduates were a reminder of the “new normal” created by the pandemic, it didn’t make crossing the stage as a graduate any less special.
“My parents are super proud and excited to be here. We weren’t sure if we were going to have a graduation, so I am super excited,” said Michaela Marotta ’21, a childhood education major, who will return to Saint Rose for her master’s degree in education. “Honestly, it feels so amazing. I loved my time at Saint Rose, and I am continuing my career here at Saint Rose.”
Watch the commemorative videos, including the full livestream of each commencement: