Ashley Rosales, member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, Lakewood,  met and overcame personal challenges to earn her bachelor of science degree from Georgian Court University.  Courtesy photo
Ashley Rosales, member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, Lakewood, met and overcame personal challenges to earn her bachelor of science degree from Georgian Court University. Courtesy photo
Over four ceremonies on May 19-20, Georgian Court University, Lakewood, celebrated its 450 bachelor’s degree and nearly 225 master’s degree graduates from August and December 2020 and May 2021.

“You can make a difference, wherever you go and whatever career path you take. I wholeheartedly urge you to do so!” said Marlene Lao-Collins, executive director for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton. The member of St. Joseph Parish, Trenton, addressed the graduating class at ceremony 4 on May 20, where she was awarded an honorary doctor of public service degree. “Embrace Georgian Court University’s core values of respect, integrity, justice, compassion and service – and intentionally live them out. Incorporating those values throughout our whole society … is key to protecting the dignity of all humans and ensuring that people will grow in community. It takes all of us to look out for one another.”

“The graduates represented 11 states, a territory and eight countries, and ranged in age from 18 to 90,” said Tara M. Strickland, assistant editorial director for the GCU Office of Marketing and Communications. “Marion Thomas, believed to be the oldest graduate in Georgian Court history, was awarded a bachelor of arts degree in interdisciplinary studies last December and attended the May ceremony.”

Eight newly ordained deacons for the Diocese of Trenton received their degrees and certificates from GCU this spring; five received master’s degrees, one earned a bachelor of arts degree, one earned a certificate in pastoral ministry and one a certificate in religious studies.

Additional speakers for the ceremonies included poet and activist Alicia Cook, ’08 (ceremony 1); Judith M. Persichilli, New Jersey Commissioner of Health as well as vice chair of the GCU Board of Trustees and a member of St. James Parish, Pennington (ceremony 2); Annie Hanna Cestra, ’73, executive vice president and COO of Howard Hanna Real Estate Services who received an honorary doctorate of business administration (ceremony 3). Graduating student speakers for the four ceremonies were Brianna Griffin, bachelor of arts in nursing (ceremonies 1 and 3); Cindy Reinman, bachelor of science in nursing (ceremony 2); and Laura Burns, master of arts in administration and leadership (ceremony 4).

The extensive class of nearly 100 bachelor of science in nursing graduates included several men, underscoring the continued growth of male nurses in the profession, Strickland noted. “In addition, the university awarded a posthumous degree to late GCU nursing student Britani Kramer, who would have graduated this month.”

Herself a longtime nurse, Persichilli reflected on the role of nurses during the COVID-19 pandemic, extolling the efforts of the soon-to-be nurses. “Nurses are vital to our health care system. Never has that been more true than today,” she emphasized. “COVID-19 has been an extraordinary, once-in-a-century pandemic. As I have told the team who has worked on this nonstop at the Department of Health, you are not just living through history. By your work, you are making history as we journey to restore a new normal to our lives.”

More than 40 percent of the GCU graduating nursing class worked in hospitals during the pandemic, Persichilli pointed out. “You are a very special graduating class – I’m sure you know that. You joined the ranks of frontline caregivers, saving the lives of valued New Jerseyans: someone’s mom or dad, or brother or sister. Please know how grateful we are for your service that you gave.”

During her speech to nursing candidates, Reinman recalled an experience during the quarantine period of the pandemic, when visitors were not allowed in hospitals, and she introduced herself to a patient.

“I entered … with my typical greeting, ‘hi, I’m Cindy, I’m a student nurse; I’m at your service. Is there anything I can do for you?’ She started to cry. She said, ‘I just found out I have colon cancer … I talked to my daughter on the phone, but it’s just not the same.’

“I didn’t know what to say,” Reinman continued. “Honestly, I was expecting to get her some ice water, maybe a few crackers. I simply took her hand and asked if she would like me to sit with her for a while. I sat. I listened. … I left that room feeling like, ‘wow – this is what it’s really all about.’ Later I heard that she told my preceptor, ‘God sent me a student today, and it was just what I needed.”

GCU success stories abound, including that of Ashley Rosales, who graduated with a bachelor of science degree in natural science with a minor in biology. She set out to be an example to her four younger siblings when she enrolled in GCU. A graduate of Lakewood High School and member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, Lakewood, Rosales maintained a full-time job for the Lakewood Board of Education during her college years.

In January before the pandemic hit, Rosales learned that she was pregnant. After going into labor during her summer class final, her professor allowed her extra time to finish when she was able to return.

“Everybody was very helpful and understanding,” Rosales said. “In March my husband and daughter and I all tested positive for COVID, and the professors gave me extended time to finish my assignments. I was really sick, and couldn’t even sign in to class some days, and they were always checking on me to see how I was doing.”

Rosales is currently pursuing her teaching license and hopes to go on to earn a master’s degree in biology. “GCU is really focused on their Mercy core values; all the classes are centered on them, and they do a great job applying them to the institution as a whole.”