by Eric D. Lehman, Associate Professor, Communications Specialist
On May 1, 2022, the cherry trees were blooming under a blue, cloudless sky as students lined up to enter the Hartford Healthcare Amphitheater. The white dome of the awning filtered the brilliant morning sun, lighting hundreds of bouquets of roses, hydrangeas, snapdragons, and astromelias that graced the stage. The stands filled with family and friends waiting for the graduates, stage party, and the invited speaker, actor and activist Danny Glover, to enter the stadium.
Graduation is always a special day, but this occasion was even more extraordinary, as the world began to recover from a deadly pandemic and University of Bridgeport (UB) began its own new chapter. “It’s very exciting what’s happening with the University,” said Dr. Meg Zayan, UB’s Community Health Education Coordinator. “It’s a privilege to be part of the continuity of scholars over time.” That continuity was on full display as the faculty, staff, and alums gathered in the hallways under the stands to confer 663 undergraduate degrees and 743 graduate degrees on the eager students.
“It’s the best day of the year,” said President Danielle Wilken. “This is why we come to work every day, to celebrate the students and their dreams.” Gordon Stier ’77, vice president of the Alumni Association, agreed wholeheartedly. “I’m optimistic and excited about the future,” he said. “Now is the time for implementation.” But Golden Knight Carol Soboleski might have been the most excited of anyone. “I’ve been waiting for this day since I graduated here in 1972,” she said. “That’s a long time.”
Many of the students had decorated their mortarboards with purple feathers and glitter, along with slogans like “Earned not Given” and “I’m There.” Soccer player Yasmidt Mendoza decorated hers with flowers and gears and a note that read: “I’m not a princess, I’m a mechanical engineer.” Psychology major Ricardo Jimenez said that the day helped remind him that hard work pays off. “Even if you are in a period of stress and hopelessness,” he said, “there is something waiting for you.” Fellow Psychology major David Diah was more direct about his own stress, saying, “After four years, it’s finally over and I get to sleep.”
Not everyone who was graduating was leaving UB. “It’s surreal that I’m graduating,” said Danielle Ide, a Human Services and Psychology major, who is starting the M.A. in Counseling program in the fall. “I will still be here and am excited to start all over again.” Softball pitcher and dental hygiene major Kaite Burawski was receiving her associate degree but will be returning to pitch two more seasons and finish her B.S. degree. “UB has been good to me,” she said. “I feel a lot of pride.”
Just after 10 a.m., students entered the amphitheater, waving and smiling, to the resounding cheers of their parents, friends, and faculty. The stage party gathered amongst the flowers under the UB flags with symbols that represented the lamp of learning, the tree of life, the Perry Arch, and the seascape of Long Island Sound. As everyone was seated, Grand Marshall Susan Ferency announced the ceremony’s beginning.
After Professor Mya Scarlato led a special rendition of the national anthem, President Danielle Wilken spoke to the assembled crowd. She referenced the struggles of the pandemic, praising the students’ resilience. “You thrived,” she said. “You learned to dance in the rain.” But, she pointed out, their quest was not over. “You’ve earned degrees, knowledge, and skills,” she said. “What will you do to make the world a better place? How will you be part of the solution?”
Wilken acknowledged the faculty, family, and friends of the graduates, and then the Golden Knights, who had graduated fifty years earlier. Next, Ann Clark, Chair of the Board of Trustees took the podium, followed by Mayor Joseph Ganim ’83, who lauded the University’s partnership with the city of Bridgeport. Senator Richard Blumenthal offered his congratulations on the “beautiful spring occasion,” mentioning how teachers have been on the front lines with health care workers and others during the difficult times of the pandemic. He also thanked the president of Goodwin University, Mark Scheinberg, and spoke about how all of us received help from the people of the past and urged the students to be role models for others in the future.
Zaria Rawls, receiving her B.S. in Health Sciences, was the undergraduate speaker, recalling her 2018 orientation, where incoming students all sang “UB, do you love me?” She noted the changes brought by the pandemic since then, from online classes to protective masks. “Through all of those changes, we persevered,” she said. “Today on the first day of May 2022, we are here, we are graduating, we made it.”
Dr. Manyul Im, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, acknowledged members of the stage party and formally welcomed legendary actor and humanitarian Danny Glover to the proceedings. “Mr. Glover is an American treasure,” he said, citing his work in education, theater, and film, as well as his activism for positive change. “He embodies the spirit of service to community and the world, to which UB is also deeply committed.”
President Wilken and Trustee Chair Ann Clark conferred the Doctor of Humane Letters degree on Danny Glover, who then took his place at the podium. Standing tall in the brisk wind, he spoke of the importance of education, of the continuity of “this incredible journey that I’ve been able to be a part of.” He talked about his mother, the first member of her family to graduate from college, 80 years ago. “She was always grateful that she didn’t have to pick cotton in September, she went to school.” He then talked about how her courage shaped who he is today. “She would be proud to know that her son was with you today in this moment.” The passing Metro North train punctuated his words with a whistle and the flags of the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and the United States waved in the breeze.
“Some of you will continue your work as students, some of you will go into the world,” he said confidently, his voice getting stronger with each word. “You will begin to unravel this mystery of how we become better human beings and stewards of the planet.” He paused for a moment, enjoying the silence. “Thank you for the chance to watch another generation move forward.”
Despite the brisk wind, Glover then proceeded to shake hands with every excited student who crossed the stage. Many danced and took selfies with the celebrated actor. “He made every student feel special,” said student Justin Hafele. “It was a great honor to meet Danny Glover.” “It was awesome,” agreed Craig Leonard. “I told him I was a huge fan and he immediately hugged me.”
Provost Im presented the graduates to President Wilken, who officially conferred the degrees, and Alumni Association president Thomas Moran ‘74 welcomed them as alums. “The future is bright,” he said. “Congratulations, Class of 2022. Be engaged and be involved.” President Wilken echoed his remarks. “Let that sink in. You are no longer UB students, you are now UB alumni.”
But as the undergraduate students happily joined their families, everyone at the amphitheater got ready for another ceremony. The sky remained a brilliant shade of blue and the breezy air warmed and stilled. At 2 p.m. the graduate students walked out into the bright sunshine for their own special moment.
While receiving her Physician Assistant M.S. degree, Brianna Wall took the podium as the student speaker for the graduate ceremony. “As you enter into your chosen careers as well as the unknown journey of life, hold with you the lessons you learned throughout the last few years and keep this community close,” Walls said. “It is because of the people sitting here in this stadium, surrounding you today, that you became the person you are.”
At this second ceremony, Danny Glover gave a wholly different speech, telling students about his friend Robert Parris Moses, the organizer of the 1964 Freedom Summer and founder of the Algebra Project, a math literacy program for disadvantaged students. He had first met Moses during his senior year in high school when he was recruiting students for the Freedom Summer and later they became friends. This was another link in the chain of continuity, another person who passed down knowledge and character to Glover, who now had the chance to pass it on again. “I’m proud to be here as you take the next step in your own growth and careers,” he told the students.
It is no accident that everyone who spoke at the University of Bridgeport’s 2022 Commencement focused on the unity created by education and its endurance throughout the years. It’s a simple equation. Continuity equals community over time. And for the University of Bridgeport, that is more than algebra, that is everything.