Commencement in the Time of COVID
The COVID-19 pandemic presented challenges but also a chance for creative problem-solving to celebrate our newest graduates.
The Stockton Class of 2020 originally celebrated their achievements with a special eCommencement ceremony on May 15, 2020. With large, in-person gatherings banned in the height of the pandemic, the confetti fell on the Class of 2020, but it did so virtually. Graduates celebrated at home and on social media instead of together at Boardwalk Hall.
“We would love to congratulate each and every one of you, to present your degrees in person, to shake your hands,” said President Harvey Kesselman in his video address. “But as you know, the current global health crisis has presented considerable challenges to our time-honored traditions of commencement.”
Celebrating the Class of 2020
In the fall as restrictions relaxed, nearly 1,000 members of the Class of 2020 returned to campus to walk across the stage in eight separate, socially-distanced outdoor Commencement ceremonies on the Galloway campus held Oct. 23, 2020.
“It’s his master’s degree – I wouldn’t miss it for the world!” said Yvonne Ford of her son Sean who earned his Master’s in Business Administration and posed for photos with his mom and father, Patrick.
The eight smaller ceremonies were held on alternate hours at two locations on the Galloway campus. Chairs were spaced six feet apart and face coverings were required.
“Yes, our ceremony set-up looks different,” said President Kesselman. “We are socially distant, but we are no less connected. We are joined in fellowship to celebrate this long-awaited moment.”
He told the graduates that while “things happen” that are unexpected, they must remain flexible and adaptable to thrive. He noted that their return to campus was about much more than being handed a piece of paper.
“It’s about an idea, symbolic of your stick-to-itiveness, your determination, your persistence, your resolve.”
Zakiya Smith Ellis, chief policy advisor to New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and former N.J. Secretary of Higher Education, who was scheduled as the keynote speaker in May at Boardwalk Hall, spoke at the ceremony.
“To say this is not the commencement we all envisioned would be the understatement of the year,” Smith Ellis said. “We are all making sacrifices and living a life we never imagined. And all of it can be a bit exhausting.”
But, she noted, that this year has also proven that the Class of 2020 is prepared for anything.
“What you have been through this past year means you can weather any storm,” Smith Ellis said.
Perseverance, Optimism Define Class of 2021
The special fall commencement ceremonies proved to be a great trial run for future, smaller in-person ceremonies. Sticking to state health guidelines, the Class of 2021 celebrated their accomplishments during 12 ceremonies held May 11-13, 2021, in the Sports Center.
More than 2,600 students graduated from Stockton in 2021, many of them also having overcome struggles, and all of them having grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic.
More than 2,000 graduates participated in the COVID-19-safe ceremonies with a few family members cheering them on in person, and others watching the livestream. Each ceremony featured graduates of a different school, and a designated student speaker.
Kathleen Ngo was the student speaker in Ceremony 4, celebrating graduates of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. Following the ceremony, Ngo was surprised with a marriage proposal from classmate Daniel Do. Ngo is heading to Northwestern for a doctorate in chemistry, and Do is going to Ohio State for a doctorate in food science.
A Class of Firsts
Doctor of Nursing Practice
As nurse practitioners, Holly Ann Donald, Lisa Mason, and Shawn and Kelsey Denning are used to patients asking if they are doctors.
They can now say yes.
The four are the first graduates of the Stockton University Doctor of Nursing Practice program. They received their diplomas at the May 12, 2021 Commencement.
The Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) program is geared toward advanced practice nurses such as nurse practitioners, certified nurse midwives, certified registered nurse anesthetists, and clinical nurse specialists, who are already prepared in master’s level programs.
The master’s level programs have been steadily increasing requirements to meet the complexities of the health care system and diverse populations.
Donald, a Little Egg Harbor resident who works for AtlantiCare, explained that nurse practitioners write prescriptions and diagnose patients without the same level of oversight from a medical doctor. Nurse practitioners work in collaboration with physicians.
“We are in a primary care role. I always wanted to get this,” Donald said. "It breaks a barrier and the care is more inclusive and more personal.”
Master of Arts in Counseling
The first cohort in the Master of Arts in Counseling program included 23 graduates who received their degrees on May 13, 2021. The two-year program is designed to educate students about best practices in mental health and human services and train them in the skills necessary to work with clients in a variety of settings, including hospitals, social service agencies, residential treatment centers, community mental health centers, and other organizations.
Abe Velasquez wants to help underserved communities in his hometown of Atlantic City.
Joseph Black is a Marine Corps veteran who served two deployments to Afghanistan and came home realizing the need for more mental health services for veterans in South Jersey.
The graduates said they bonded as a class and grew personally as well as professionally.
“My experience in this program was absolutely life-changing,” said Jazmin Torres, who was looking for a program that would meet in person and was close to home. “I cannot put into words how much I've grown in the past two years both as a counselor and a person. I have become someone that my younger self would never thought possible and it is almost entirely due to this program.”