By MADELEINE MACCAR
Rowan College at Burlington County (RCBC) might have held a truncated commencement ceremony May 15, but the half-hour opportunity to honor the class of 2020 was still loaded with inspirational messages and words of encouragement from faculty, grads and proud family and friends.
Nearly 700 viewers tuned into the Facebook Live watch party broadcasting the college’s first virtual graduation to celebrate the largest class in its 50-year history. Addressing the virtual audience, RCBC President Dr. Michael Cioce noted that the 2,190 students whose commencement was adapted to unprecedented times should be proud of forging ahead despite not only a pandemic, but the countless other obstacles they faced along the way.
“Our world has definitely changed but nothing — nothing — can take away from the accomplishments of our students,” he said. “We have to choose to focus on either what we lost or celebrate what we gained: Believe me, we have gained a lot over the past few months.”
Cioce itemized those cumulative wins despite the class of 2020’s “generation-defining” run-in with the COVID-19 pandemic. He noted how their collective resilience and determination was on full display when they “didn’t blink once when we asked them to reimagine” their graduation ceremony.
“Do not let the circumstances around us cloud your accomplishments,” Cioce noted. “You’ll emerge from this time stronger, more unified and better prepared to handle adversity.”
The three graduates who received individual recognition also addressed their peers with a mixture of hope, humor and insight. President’s Award winners Timothy Wilkinson and Justin Foster and valedictorian Shanni Prutchi each spoke of their individual journeys as RCBC students and considered what the future holds for their graduating class.
Wilkinson, a nursing student who came to RCBC after the one-two punch of losing his job the same week his wife was diagnosed with an incurable disease, was among the dozens of RCBC students who clamored to work at the county’s COVID-19 testing center.
“I know it hasn’t been easy, but we made it,” he said to his fellow graduates, calling on them to discover their own strength, as he did from watching his wife Christine’s courageous battle.
“I’m going to challenge my fellow graduates to continue to push the limits for what you believe is possible for yourselves,” Wilkinson said. “I know what it took for you to get here, which is why I believe in you.”
Foster began his own message with thanks and humor before asking the class of 2020 to consider what led them to RCBC on their way to whatever the future holds.
“No matter your story, your hard work and passion got you to where you are today,” he said. “The fire within us does not stop here … From here, we will all go onto our next steps. Whether it be pursuing a dream job or higher education, we will face more hurdles, we will overcome more obstacles and we will celebrate achieving even more dreams than we ever imagined.”
Prutchi’s valedictory address came with the insight of someone who has overcome medical challenges and setbacks while still chasing her dreams and grabbing hold of accomplishments, like being part of a research team whose work aims to conquer cancer. She implored her fellow graduates to realize their own potential after beating so many challenges.
“Graduating in and of itself is a major accomplishment, but doing so in a period of uncertainty, loss and change requires an incredible amount of effort and dedication,” Prutchi said.
She referenced the story of “Mister” Fred Rogers learning as a child to “look for the helpers” in difficult times, and urged her fellow students to use lessons learned at RCBC to become those agents of the greater good.
“Right now, it is our turn to be the helpers,” Prutchi said. “Just as our courses have prepared us to excel in our desired fields, RCBC has prepared us to use our abilities to make the world a better place.
“As proud RCBC graduates, it is now incumbent upon us to be the helpers.”
Prutchi cited how the class of 2020 has already stepped up to use its “diverse talents and backgrounds” to benefit their own spheres of influence: fashion students churning out protective masks, cybersecurity students aiding the fight against digital attacks, nursing students running to the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, art students bringing cheer to their community and liberal arts students documenting this historical epoch.
“We are the helpers,” Prutchi concluded. “Even if each of us helps just a single person, we can make an enormous difference in the world.”
Cioce and Student Government Association President Kennedy Vasquez then presented the Professor of the Year Award to criminal justice instructor Joseph Rizzo.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the great faculty that we have at RCBC, and to be considered in that company is truly a great honor I will cherish for the rest of my life,” Rizzo said in an acceptance speech rife with gratitude and congratulations.
The Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching is given to an outstanding educator every three years, and RCBC is one of just 52 colleges participating in the Lindback Foundation’s nationwide program. This year’s recipient was Dr. Erika Baldt, an associate professor of English.
“Dr. Baldt embodies the ideals of an educator: She inspires leadership and widespread collaboration among her students and across disciplines across the college,” Cioce said.
As more than 2,000 names scrolled across the screen accompanied by “Pomp and Circumstance” and other musical fanfare, the Facebook Live feed flashed smiling, heart-emblazoned reaction icons and emphasized cheers from family members and friends celebrating their loved ones in the RCBC class of 2020. Pre-written messages and photographs of the graduating class going about daily campus life also punctuated the list of graduates, as did the names of each major’s academic award winners.
After the nearly 20-minute list of names concluded, Cioce wished the class of 2020 the best of luck. The virtual ceremony isn’t the final milestone for this year’s grads, however: They are invited back for RCBC’s 2021 commencement ceremony if they want an in-person graduation experience.