By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
Two days of solemn and celebratory events drew the school year to a close for Georgian Court University with a geographical twist: for the first time in its 107 year commencement history, graduation was held off campus.
In a move that opened the ceremony up to a greater number of family and friends, 397 undergraduates and 268 graduate students received their diplomas in Toms River’s 3,500-seat RWJ Barnabas Health Arena.
Even though the move opened the door to an estimated 1,000 more ticket holders this year, the arena was full to overflowing for the May 24 double ceremony..
The historic grounds of Georgian Court in Lakewood did provide a picturesque setting for a number of traditional events held the day before including the Baccalaureate Mass celebrated by Msgr. R. Vincent Gartland and award ceremonies. Students massed for their traditional academic walk along Senior Pathway and gathered at the Fountain of Apollo for photos.
In his homily at the Baccalaureate Mass, Msgr. Gartland, a retired priest of the Diocese and a member of GCU’s board of trustees, called the students a “sign of great hope” in a 21st century rife with “complexities and contradictions that can wear us down. In the Mercy tradition, you have empowered to shape a just and compassionate world,” he said.
His words set the tone that would echo throughout all the exercises by focusing on the Mercy Core Values of justice, respect, integrity, service and compassion. “These are not signs as you drive onto the campus; they underlie all that happens here.”
“It is our hope that they have been well planted in your hearts and in the days ahead as you begin to put into action all that Georgian Court has been for you, they will rise to the surface and inform your life as an engaged citizen of the world,” he said.
During commencement exercises, Dr. Joseph R. Marbach, university president, spoke of commencement as a “new beginning” which involves the mixed emotions of leaving the “place you’ve called home for a few years” while “eagerly awaiting the promise of the future.”
“Indeed, the branding theme of the university,” he said, “is that Georgian Court expands possibility and this is happening in a very real way in this arena today.” Marbach encouraged them to focus on the fact that their experience at Georgian Court has given them an edge possessed statistically by few people worldwide.
At the same time, he said, “realize that earning a college degree is no guarantee of success and happiness. Statistics do show a correlation but success can be defined in many ways.”
His advice for a successful future: “Pursue your passion. Do what you love to do. This will inspire you to pursue a lifetime of learning.”
During the undergraduate portion of the ceremony, Dr. Marbach conferred three honorary degrees: a Doctor of Educational Administration to Triantafillos Parlapanides; a Doctor of Business Administration to longtime Georgian Court board member Jon F. Hanson, and an honorary Doctor of Business Administration to the day’s keynote speaker, Elisabeth Fontenelli, who served for years on the GCU Board of Trustees and recently retired after a 30-year career in the global financial industry with Goldman Sachs.
Fontenelli shared how experience as a GCU trustee, gave her the “words to articulate Mercy core values.”
“In some ways, it was an awakening that these values had been my guide all along,” said Fontenelli who explained that she first encountered Mercy tradition as a student in St. Mary’s Academy once located just around the corner from Georgian Court.
“Your foundation is strong, rooted in Mercy and faith and the persistent pursuit of the Mercy core values,” said Fontenelli. “… The circle of Mercy is truly timeless and it begins with you… extend Mercy to your inner circle, those closest to you and beyond the outer circle, the wider world. … Respect yourself. Don’t be so hard on yourself that you become paralyzed to act.”
Olivia Zitarosa, president of the Student Government Association Executive Board, delivered the student address in which she remarked how her own generation of Millennials often get a “bad rap.”
“We are often called lazy, entitled and digitally obsessed … I would actually argue the opposite,” said Zitarosa, a member of St. Peter Parish, Point Pleasant Beach, and a business administration and marketing major at GCU.
Georgian Court, Zitarosa said, “has given us the opportunity to chase our dreams and make them a reality by putting in the right amount of hard work, perseverance and effort. With the knowledge and skills we have acquired, we know that no dream is too big or too small. All of them are obtainable with the right mindset and work ethic.”
Drawing on the words of the poet Robert Frost, she urged her classmates to be open to all that life has to offer. “You never know where opportunities lie and who can offer them to you. You’d be surprised what will come knocking on your door when you open yourself up to possibility and take that road less traveled.”
In moving sequences each graduate and undergraduate was called by name during the afternoon to the stage and many students received booming ovations from their friends and family members in the bleachers.
But the ovation given to one student – Casey Tumblety – as he rose to claim the Kingdon Gould award was astounding. The award is presented annually to the senior, who in the opinion of fellow classmates, contributed to the general welfare of Georgian Court University.
As a student with high functioning autism, Tumblety, a member of St. Catherine Parish, Middletown, consistently triumphed throughout his four years, participating fully in leadership programs, navigating a successful internship with Caregiver Volunteers of Central Jersey and served as a peer mentor, all the while raising awareness of autism.
“My proudest moment about my graduation from Georgian Court University was how I realized I was truly capable of earning my B.F.A. [bachelor of fine arts] degree in graphic design and multimedia,” he commented.
“The same goes with setting and accomplishing any goals that I have in my mind, where perseverance is key. Even with the challenges that my disability, autism, has, it ultimately serves as a powerful ally that reminds me that I may function differently than others, but I still achieve common goals nevertheless.”