New Tradition Strikes a Chord with Seniors
Aberdeen Allen Jr. was standing in the middle deck of Rutgers Stadium Sunday, marveling at all the spectators around him.
It was late in the afternoon. The Rutgers University Commencement had wrapped up an hour earlier. The dignitaries, musicians, and honored guests from that ceremony had all departed. But thousands of people remained in the stadium, braving unseasonably warm, muggy weather to join together with the university’s largest and most comprehensive school, the School of Arts and Sciences, as it held its first convocation.
“I had no idea this would be so big,” said Allen, a resident of Parlin, whose daughter, Nia Allen-Lee, graduated with a degree in Women’s and Gender Studies. “Just to see the School of Arts and Sciences and how many people are left over after commencement; it shows the growth of Rutgers, and the stature of the individual schools.”
Months in the making, with a crew of 270 staff and students working to pull it off, the convocation aimed to celebrate students’ achievement, commemorate the tradition of arts and sciences at Rutgers, and serve notice that SAS, established in 2006, had come into its own as the center of undergraduate education at Rutgers. It all got underway around 3:30 as the School’s deans and university board members processed into the stadium to the accompaniment of trumpet fanfare and the booming voice of stadium announcer Chris O’Connor.
“Entering from the east gate, gonfalonier Vice Dean of Undergraduate Education Michael Beals!” O’Connor declared.
Then students processed behind faculty carrying the silken banners of red, white, and teal that denoted their major.
The two-hour ceremony that followed was by turns reflective and celebratory, offering a mix of tradition and innovation. It culminated with some 3,000 students walking across the stage to shake hands with the deans as the Jumbotron captured every moment and identified every last graduate by name.
“This is a momentous day!” declared Executive Dean Peter March.
Indeed, it was a day filled with memorable moments.
- Grammy-winning singer and Class of 2015 member Regina Belle delivered an extraordinary performance of the song “Dream in Color.”
- A video broadcast featured students shouting out the places, programs, and events that made their four years at Rutgers and SAS so special.
- A spectacular fireworks display concluded the event.
But the centerpiece was the students, especially as they carried out the venerable tradition of ascending to the stage to receive personal recognition for completing their degree.
Students came to the stage in four lines, with four screens capturing each group. Once up on stage, they were welcomed by March, Executive Vice Dean James Masschaele, Area Dean for Humanities James Swenson, and Area Dean for Social and Behavioral Sciences Rosanne Altshuler.
“The screen was huge, and that made it a lot nicer,” said Dan Curry, of Tewksbury, whose son Michael majored in economics. “It wasn’t like you were sitting way up there wondering whether that was your kid. It was crystal clear and I got a great picture of my son.”
Andy Janosko, of Mount Laurel, agreed.
“The group recognition (at University Commencement) was great,” said Janosko, whose son Kevin Rash was an information technology and informatics major. “But everyone loves individual recognition.”
Although SAS is the largest school at Rutgers, it has never had a separate convocation of its own. That changed when March, who became executive dean July 1, 2014, decided the School needed to do more to celebrate its identity, foster a great sense of unanimity among its departments, and recognize students for their achievements.
The idea, though a departure from previous years, struck a chord with students.
Inside the cavernous marshalling area under the stadium, SAS students gathering with others of the same major said they were thrilled to be having a ceremony of their own.
“I think it’s great what they are doing,” said Christopher McDougal, of Franklin Township, an exercise science and sport management major. “It’s more of a communal and family event where we all come together. My family is very excited to be able to see me make the walk.”
Arminder Singh, an economics major from South Plainfield, said the convocation captured the intellectual scope of the School.
“We have people becoming doctors, scientists, writers,” he said. “When you look at everyone together, you see a population that’s like a pie chart. It’s amazing.”
In his convocation address, March connected the tradition of a comprehensive arts and sciences education back to Queen’s College, which was chartered in 1766 and eventually became Rutgers University.
“This 18th-century curriculum already embodied the essential vision for a classical liberal arts education. And today we claim it for our own,” March said. “The School of Arts and Sciences gives full expression to that vision, providing a diverse and comprehensive education that ranges from English to economics, from genetics to geography, and from physics to philosophy.”
Also addressing students, but in a musical and deeply emotional vein, was Regina Belle, who won a Grammy in the 1990s for A Whole New World, a song featured in the Aladdin movie.
Belle’s moving story of returning to Rutgers after nearly 30 years to earn her degree was broadcast a video during Convocation.
Then Belle herself, in cap and gown, took the stage.
“To my Class of 2015, I love you all!” she said. “This is for you.”
She performed “Dream in Color,” a song that, with its themes of hope and determination, she said was a fitting message for graduates of all ages.
All told, SAS graduated about 4,300 students this year.
Emily Goldman, of Marlboro, said she was feeling, “nervous, excited, happy and sad.”
A women’s and gender studies major, Goldman said she’ll miss late nights with friends and walking around the Douglass Campus.
Meanwhile, her fellow senior Saira Shakir was preparing to bid goodbye to New Jersey as well as Rutgers. The political science major grew up in a small town in Tennessee and chose Rutgers in part because of its setting in New Brunswick and Piscataway.
"I come from a really small rural town and I wanted a big university with a big town feel,” she said. “There are so many campuses here that you get every kind of aspect of the collegiate experience.”
After four years in New Brunswick, however, Shakir isn’t heading back to a small town. In fact, she’s preparing for a move to a bigger city. She’s moving to Atlanta to attend Emory University School of Law.
See videos, slide shows, and other great content from the historic first-ever SAS Convocation. Go to the convocation homepage.
Click here to read more about Regina Belle's inspiring performance at the SAS 2015 Convocation.