“Pomp and Circumstance” and the Purple Eagle Battalion Color Guard began the ceremonies. The national anthems of Canada and the United States were sung by theatre majors Sonia Angeli and Caroline Kolasny, respectively. The Rev. Aidan Rooney, C.M., vice president for mission integration, gave the invocation. And the ceremonial mace was prominently placed in front of colorful flags representing countries from around the world. But Niagara University’s 2020 undergraduate commencement, celebrating its 163rd graduating class, was unlike any other in its history.
On July 26, Niagara University administrators, board members, faculty, and students gave their remarks, advice, and congratulations from the Leary Theatre stage in the Elizabeth Ann Clune Center for Theatre as the approximately 635 graduating seniors watched from their homes or other off-campus venues.
After remarks by the Rev. Craig Pridgen, senior pastor at True Bethel Baptist Church in Niagara Falls and a member of Niagara’s Board of Trustees, the students were instructed to put on their graduation hoods and to position their tassels on the right side of their mortarboards in preparation for the reading of names by the deans and directors of the colleges of Arts and Sciences, Business Administration, Education, Hospitality and Tourism Management, the School of Nursing, and the Niagara University Opportunity Program. Once all the candidates were presented, the Rev. James J. Maher, C.M., Niagara University president, conferred the degrees and the students were able to move their tassels to the left.
Sarah Wetzel, a psychology and criminal justice major from Batavia, N.Y., received the Senior Medal in recognition of earning the highest GPA; Liam Cuddy, a communication studies major from Auburn, N.Y., was selected by his peers as the student leader recipient of the Niagara Medal; and Aryana Anderson, a criminal justice and criminology major from Rochester, N.Y., received the Diamond Eagle Award, given to a student in the Niagara University Opportunity Program who successfully integrates academic excellence with other aspects of his or her life. Nicholas Graham, president of the Niagara University Student Government Association, announced the student honorees.
Senior class president Audrey Dunn, from Webster, N.Y., offered her comments and an expression of gratitude on behalf of the senior class.
“Some may say we’ll forever be known as the Class of COVID-19, and we’ll go down in history for that very reason, but I don’t necessarily agree with them,” she said. “We have each overcome a major obstacle that was unexpectedly put before us, which allowed us to learn the true meaning of being flexible, innovative, adaptable, understanding, and creative, because we had no other choice. Those are the attributes our class will be known for. We are the Class of Resilience, Tenacity, Grit. We are the Niagara University Class of 2020!”
Reflecting the unconventional times in which the students were graduating, Father Maher’s remarks also referenced the pandemic, as well as other current issues such as racial injustice and the recent passing of Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.
Curator, educator, artist, and collector Gerald C. Mead received an honorary doctor of fine arts degree in appreciation and recognition of his support of the university and its Castellani Art Museum. In April, Meade donated 58 artworks by 46 nationally and internationally acclaimed artists to the CAM, selected from his collection of more than 1,400 paintings, prints, drawings, sculptures, photographs, crafts, and videos by over 1,000 artists, many of whom are connected with Western New York by either birth or residency. His gift expands the museum’s collection by adding works by artists who are not currently represented, as well as works by artists in the CAM’s collection that broaden the range and depth of their careers through earlier or later works or work in a different media. In addition to his donation of art, Mead also established the Gerald C. Mead Jr. Endowed Scholarship in Art History with Museum Studies, the first for that degree program, and is an inaugural member of the newly launched Castellani Art Museum Legacy Society, a planned giving society for the museum.
Several faculty members were also honored during both the undergraduate and graduate commencement ceremonies. Retiring professor of education Dr. Paul Vermette was recognized for his longtime service to the university, and Emerito Medals for 25 years of service as faculty were given to Dr. Zongqing Zhou, professor in the College of Hospitality and Tourism Management; Dr. Mark Barner, associate professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies; Dr. Kevin Blair, professor in the Department of Social Work; Dr. Mark Gallo, professor in the Department of Biology; and Dr. Judith Merkle, professor in the Department of Religious Studies. At the virtual commencement ceremony on July 24 for graduate students, Dr. Thomas Sheeran, professor of education, received the Dunleavy Medal in recognition of his 50 years as a faculty member.
A third virtual commencement ceremony is planned for Niagara University in Ontario students. In all, more than 1,000 students will be welcomed as new Purple Eagle alumni.