May 2, 2017

45th Annual Statewide Commencement Dates Announced

commencement medallions

(SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – May 2, 2017) The time, day, date and location of each of SUNY Empire State College’s 45th Commencement Exercises now are available online.

More than 3,400 associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as undergraduate and graduate certificates, will be conferred on the class of 2017.

In keeping with the college’s long-standing tradition, graduate and undergraduate students will provide commencement remarks at each of the college’s eight events.

Again this year, all eight commencement events will be streamed live via the Internet.

Additional information about each student speaker, and a hyperlink to access each event live, will be provided as it becomes available.

The time, day, date and location of each event are listed below.

Rochester – Genesee Valley | Syracuse – Central New York | Buffalo – Western New York | Albany – Capital Region | Purchase – Hudson Valley | Manhattan – New York City | Labor Studies – New York City | Brookville – Long Island

Rochester – Genesee Valley

7 p.m., Wednesday, May 31, Rochester Riverside Convention Center, 123 East Main Street, Rochester, N.Y.

Of the nearly 3,500 degrees awarded statewide, a total of 375 degrees, 51 associate, 330 bachelor’s, 26 nursing and 38 master’s, will be conferred at the college’s Rochester commencement event.

The commencement speakers for Rochester are:

  • Andrew Ferris, Bachelor of Science in Historical Studies with a concentration in Middle Eastern history
  • Mary Eggers, Master of Science in Nursing Education.

About Andrew Ferris

Andrew Ferris surrounded by his family.
Andrew Ferris, at right, and his family.

Andrew Ferris, a resident of Batavia, N.Y., who graduates with a 4.0 GPA, is a supervising inspector with the New York State Gaming Commission. While a student, he was part of the inaugural class of the college’s Student Leadership Institute, and was involved in ESC Votes.

After watching his wife earn her degree from SUNY Empire, Ferris said, “I knew that I had a ton of unfulfilled academic potential. When I was younger, I didn't take school as seriously as I should have, but watching my wife earn a degree in order to better our children's lives inspired me to reach for my academic goals.”

Nearly all of his classes at SUNY Empire were online courses. “Many of the studies that I took were not the most popular classes in the course catalog,” said Ferris, “and I even created my own, History of Monotheistic Religions, in order to study the histories of the three Abrahamic religions."

Going to school, raising children and working two jobs isn't easy. “When you have a deadline approaching, children can sense your desperation and they become extra needy,” added Ferris. The main thing that he took from his time at SUNY Empire is how important setting goals is. “First, I set my goal to graduate with a 4.0 and I did that,” he stated. “Second, I wanted to make enough of an impact at the college that I would be allowed to speak at the dinner recognizing Batavia graduates. Now I'm speaking at the Rochester commencement. That doesn't even mention all of the little goals I set along the way, like get this research done by this date, or get 10 pages done by this date.”

Ferris believes to be successful starts with setting goals and never looking back. And, under no circumstances can you give yourself any excuse to quit. “The Roman myth of Aeneas recalls Aeneas sailing to a part of Italy and, once he and his forces arrived, they burned their own boats,” explained Ferris. “This produced a point-of-no-return mentality. They had to succeed, because it was their only option. Sometimes I'd forget that, and I would try and make excuses, but my wife was always there to remind me to push forward.”

Ferris is glad to have had an opportunity to learn under some brilliant faculty mentors. “With the kick-start that this degree has given me,” he concluded, “I will look to go out into the world and do all the good I can, for all the people I can, in all the ways I can, for as long as I can.”

About Mary Eggers

Mary Eggers
Mary Eggers

Mary Eggers, a resident of Henrietta, N.Y., is a nursing simulation specialist at Finger Lakes Community College and a pediatric emergency nurse at Rochester General Hospital. She and her husband are co-owners of the Valor Triathlon Project, a company that coaches triathletes, regardless of ability or distance. The two met in the sport and combined their passion for it to give back to others.

The online format of SUNY Empire is what attracted Eggers most. “I work full time, and then some, and I am a mom and wife,” she said. This gave me the chance to learn on my time.” Besides online study, she also took part in small-group studies to complete her M.S. in Nursing Education requirements.

Eggers thought that an online education would be difficult, but she was able to make connections with others in her program. “I didn’t expect that,” she added. “A lot of people will tell you that degrees they earn through any/all universities don’t truly apply to what they do. This degree directly applied to my career in nursing education.”

As a working mother, Eggers thought she would have to wait until life logistics worked out for her to earn her master’s. “SUNY Empire State’s learning options made it possible for me to do it now,” she stated. “My professors believed in me and that enabled me to expect the best of myself!”

Syracuse – Central New York

6:30 p.m., Friday, June 2, The OnCenter, 421 Montgomery Street, Syracuse, N.Y.

Of the nearly 3,500 degrees awarded statewide, a total of 407 degrees, 61 associate, 269 bachelor’s, 22 nursing and 28 master’s, will be conferred at the college’s Syracuse commencement event.

The commencement speakers for Syracuse are:

  • Anastasia Przybyla, Bachelor of Science in Community and Human Services with a concentration in psychology
  • Paul Marshall, Bachelor of Science in Cultural Studies.

About Anastasia Przybyla

Anastasia Przybyla
Anastasia Przybyla

Anastasia Przybyla, 23, of Watertown, N.Y., is a Montessori teacher and full-time student, who also manages a local Syracuse-Ft. Drum area affiliate of Share The Love, which helps needy families diaper their babies. She distributes cloth diapers to families, so that they do not have to worry about how they are going to diaper their babies and toddlers. The project is a passion of hers, because it serves two needs: “Not only is this helping needy families, but also our environment," she said. Disposable diapers sit in a landfill for almost 500 years; by using cloth, these families will save money and save our earth.”

Przybyla has maintained a 3.8 GPA throughout her studies and also received the Walker Scholarship. She overcame a difficult childhood to become the first person in her family to graduate from college. She hopes to become a play therapist, “and help children everywhere. Our future relies on the children, and it is so important to foster their growth.”

Her instructor, Sarah Carter, noted Przybyla's character, academic ability and “fantastic critical thinking and communication skills. Anastasia continuously found ways to word her posts [in class] so that other students were engaged and encouraged to respond. Throughout the entire course, her responses were always positive and uplifting.”

Her fellow psychology student, Christine Carver, describes Przybyla as a strong-willed student who, besides working full time, cares for two children.

Przybyla started graduate school in May at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology.

About Paul Marshall

Paul Marshall, 58, of Sherrill, N.Y., is a former insurance agent and stockbroker who currently serves as the executive director of a nonprofit agency in Utica, N.Y. He came to Empire State College because he wanted to become a better and more creative writer. He enrolled in the Utica Unit three years ago.

His mentor, Alan Stankiewicz, said, “It was the level of passion by which he spoke about writing that first intrigued me. Here was someone already successful in business, who chose to return to college as an adult learner to address a lifelong passion for writing, not as a career option, but for the challenge of learning to write better and creatively.

“I have seen Paul Marshall grow as a student, embodying fully what it means to be a student at Empire State College. Paul Marshall has successfully traversed Empire State College's landscape, consistently earning the praise of the tutors he has worked with throughout the college.

“It is this internal drive that makes him a strong representative of our student body, many of whom have had to adjust large portions of their lives to return to college and earn a degree,” Stankiewicz continued.

Besides serving on the board of directors of the local chapter of the National Association of Investment Clubs, teaching basic analytical skills and investment selection in Central New York, Marshall has participated in a local chapter of Toastmasters to improve his public speaking skills, while creating new audiences for his writing. He earned industry honors for outstanding sales and customer service,

“My experience at Empire State College exceeded my expectations,” said Marshall. “While academically challenging, feedback from professors and mentors was invaluable and timely. I am graduating with more than a degree – a well-rounded education that will help me continue to learn and achieve.” 

Buffalo – Western New York

10 a.m., Saturday, June 3, Buffalo State College, 1300 Elmwood Ave., Buffalo, N.Y.

Of the nearly 3,500 degrees awarded statewide, a total of 173 degrees, 25 associate, 142 bachelor’s, 22 nursing and 28 master’s, will be conferred at the college’s Buffalo commencement event.

The commencement speakers for Buffalo are:

  • Pamela Witter, Master of Business Administration in Management
  • Tirzah Hall, Bachelor of Science in Community and Human Services.

About Tirzah Hall

Graduate and student speaker Tirzah Hall's family surrounds her right after the 2017 Buffalo commencement. Student Speaker Tirzah Hall's family surrounds her right after the 2017 Buffalo Commencement Event. Photo/Empire State College

Tirzah Hall was at a loss for words when describing how she felt about graduating.

She did a have something to say about her family,“Without the support of my family, I probably would have passed out or quit. The pushed me to keep going and not stop.”

A victim of domestic violence and mother of eight, she attributes her struggling as motivation to complete a college degree, “I felt that I wanted to do better for myself, my family and set a good example for my children.”

Hall said that her children would help her with her homework. Hall also has ambitions to complete a master’s in social work and start her own business.

“I want to start a business counseling victims of domestic violence and abusers,” she said. “I want to give back, that’s my passion. I was a victim of domestic violence and I knew how upset I was not to have anybody to go to with the shame, the guilt and everything else. Victims of domestic violence have to know they can live happy, good lives.”

Hall, 48, is a Buffalo-based entrepreneur, counselor and performer and teacher of liturgical dance. Her counseling business, Recovery for Life After This, and her liturgical dance ministry, Hands in Ministry, were both founded in the Buffalo area. She has been teaching dance for more than 20 years to people ages three and older. “I have ministered in weddings, birthday parties, church functions and have traveled to different cities, being a blessing to others through dance,” Hall said.

She also has written a book about her life, “Can Anybody Hear Me: The Silent Cry,” available on Hall describes herself as highly organized, a team player and an accomplished public speaker, who is also a mother of eight. She has taught workshops, and is proficient in sign language.

“What prompted my business was being a survivor of physical, mental and emotional violence, which stirred up something in me to believe you can have life even after the storm,” Hall said. Her son, born prematurely and not expected to survive, is now seven years old. She is active in her church as president of evangelism and Sunday School teacher. She was also nominated as employee of the month at M & T bank and inducted into the National Technical Honor Society at Bryant and Stratton College. She will attend Daemen College in the fall to earn her master’s degree in social work.

“SUNY Empire is a user-friendly college that has enabled me, as a stay-at-home mom, to gain access to education through the flexible online classes and excellent staff,” she said. “What animates me is faith in God and family who support my vision.”

About Pamela Witter

Student speaker Pamela Witter shares her remarks with the class of 2017 at the Buffalo commencement event.Student speaker Pamela Witter shares her remarks with fellow graduates at the Buffalo commencement event.

Pamela Witter, 40, of Glenwood, N.Y., is vice president for development and community engagement at Trocaire College, as well as the author of three books, a fundraiser and lifelong student of leadership. She completed her MBA at Empire State College with a 3.87 GPA. Her final project was a full strategic plan for Trocaire, for which she received a perfect grade. Witter’s plan already has influenced some of the college’s strategic documents and grant planning. “My education, as you can see, was both theoretical and practical,” she said. Witter attended college part time, online, while working full time, running a small business, and caring for her family.

Classified as an at-risk youth in her teens, she overcame many life challenges to reach this milestone. She credits early mentors for steering her into the Higher Education Opportunity Program, which allowed her to first attend college. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from St. Bonaventure University. Witter gives back by speaking and doing workshops for H.E.O.P. “I do this because education truly is the great equalizer and opportunity programs are a game-changer in the lives of marginalized youth,” she said.

She was hired in a job in public relations just a few months after graduation. Later, at Houghton College, where she was executive director for development, she worked on a team that increased annual fund revenue from $700,000 to more than one million dollars per year, sustainably. Witter co-founded an adult leadership training program, Leadership Allegany, which won a community service award from the Council on the Advancement and Support of Education.

According to Emily Perryman, director of marketing and public relations at Trocaire, “Pam led the charge in building, fundraising for and growing the program with a dedicated group of volunteers.” She also chaired the program for five years and is proud that graduates have gone on to join boards, receive promotions and build powerful networking opportunities. She is an author of three books, including the novel, “Hope Rising,” and has won a bevy of awards, including the 2014 Allegany Pomona Grange Citizen of the Year Award, 2012 Leadership Cattaraugus Alumna of the Year Award, 2011 Buffalo Business First 40 Under Forty recognition and 2012 Outstanding Achiever Award from the Greater Allegany County Chamber of Commerce.

Albany – Capital Region

1 p.m., Sunday, June 4, Empire State Plaza, South Mall Arterial, Albany, N.Y.

Of the nearly 3,500 degrees awarded statewide, a total of 412 degrees, 45 associate, 290 bachelor’s, 27 nursing and 50 master’s, will be conferred at the college’s Albany commencement event.

The commencement speakers for Albany are:

  • Zekarias (Zeke) Mekonnen, Bachelor of Science in Science, Mathematics and Technology
  • Kristina Kwacz, Master of Arts in Liberal Studies.

About Kristina Kwacz

Kristina Kwacz graduates with her master's degree. Student speaker Kristina Kwacz shares her remarks with the class of 2017 at the Albany commencement event.

Kristina Kwacz said in her remarks to fellow graduates that, during the time she was studying to complete her master's, she had three collisions with deer, "... may they rest in peace," suffered two job losses, and her "dearest Mama," the inspiration for her studies, passed away.

“I am blessed. I don’t have a just a village, I feel I have a country of people who live in different spheres, that run in different circles, that are there to support me and I am beyond grateful to them,” she said.

Next up for Kwacz is to share her final project as far and wide as she is able to.

"My intentions are to take my master’s capstone project, the exhibition ‘In the Shadow of the Twenty,’ (currently on display at the college’s 113 West Ave. location through the end of June) to other SUNY Empire State locations, but also beyond (the college), throughout New York state, New England and the country. I would love to have Shadow of the Twenty displayed someday in Gdynia, Poland, where they have the Museum of Emigration, that is the long-range goal," said Kwacz.

Kwacz, of Stuyvesant, N.Y., the director of state Senator Michael Gianaris’s Albany office, completed a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, with a 3.98 GPA, and graduates this spring.

Kwacz is a 2017 recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence, the SUNY system’s most prestigious student award.

She also will be awarded the college’s School for Graduate Studies’ Dean’s Medal for her academic accomplishments, her overall contributions to the School for Graduate studies and to SUNY Empire, and for the excellence in design and execution of her culminating project, a requirement for the master's degree.

Kwacz’s academic work focuses on the history and long-term ramifications of Polish emigration to the United States.

Her master’s capstone project, “In the Shadow of the Twenty,” an exhibit combining family photographs, memoir and artifacts is on display through May 31 at the college’s location at 113 West Ave., Saratoga Springs.

Her research paper, “Pilgrimage, Partitions, and Patriarchy: Polish Women and the Virgin Mary,” was published in the fall issue of Confluence, The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies.

Her conference presentations include:

  • SUNY Graduate Research Today and Tomorrow Conference, SUNY Empire State College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., March 2017, poster presentation: “Terror, Trauma, and Totalitarianism: Lifting the Veil of Silence”
  • Institutions & Societies Annual Graduate Student Conference, University at Albany–SUNY, Albany, NY, February 2017, “Terror, Trauma, and Totalitarianism: Lifting the Veil of Silence”
  • SUNY Empire State College Student Academic Conference, Albany, N.Y., October 2016, “Terror, Trauma, and Totalitarianism: Beneath the Veil of Silence”
  • East Coast Graduate Liberal Studies Symposium, Stockton University, Galloway, N.J., June 2016, “Terror, Trauma, and Totalitarianism: Stalin and Poland’s Eastern Borderlands”
  • SUNY Empire State College Student Academic Conference, Albany, N.Y., October 2015, “What Makes Me, Me? Exploring Identity via the MA in Liberal Studies”
  • East Coast Graduate Liberal Studies Symposium, Stockton University, Galloway, N.J., June 2015, “Pilgrimage, Partitions, and Patriarchy: Polish Women and the Virgin Mary.”

Kwacz is the recipient of three scholarships, the Empire State College Foundation Susan and Bill Dake Scholarship, the Skalny Scholarship for Polish Studies from the American Council for Polish Culture, and the Empire State College Margaret C. “Peggy” Perkins Memorial Scholarship.

In her avocation of photography, she focuses on documentary images of Eastern Europe and has participated in a number of solo and group exhibitions including at the Yates Gallery at Siena College, the Spencertown Academy, the Arts Center of the Capital Region, Albany International Airport, Fenimore Art Museum, and the Columbia County Council on the Arts.

Her awards include the PhotoRegional Exhibit Award and the Columbia County Council on the Arts Emerging Artist award. She also won grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the New York State Council for the Arts Decentralization Program.

In her community, Kwacz serves on the volunteer Stuyvesant Falls Bridge Review Advisory Committee.

About Zekarias Mekonnen

Zekarias Mekonnen surrounded by his wife and two sons at the college Albany commencement event.Student Speaker Zekarias "Zeke" Mekonnen's family surrounds him after the 2017 Commencement event at Albany.

During his remarks to the class of 2017, Zekarias "Zeke" Mekonnen, who completed a Bachelor of Science in Science, Mathematics and Technology, said, “My journey does not stop here either, it’s going to continue. I definitely will go for my master’s.”

Mekonnen told his fellow graduates, faculty, staff, friends and family that his journey to degree completion took about 30 years, “Confucius said, ‘It doesn't matter how slowly you go, just don't stop.’”

After completing primary and secondary education in his native country of Ethiopia, Mekonnen earned a scholarship, through his work, to study in Havana, Cuba.

His return flight from Cuba required a transfer at Madrid-Barajas International Airport, Madrid, Spain, to Rome, Italy.

“I purposely missed the flight (from Madrid to Rome), destroyed the remaining flight ticket in my pocket, surrendered to immigration authorities at the Madrid airport and requested political asylum from the United States Government in writing.”

Asylum was granted.

The decision to seek asylum was “extremely difficult” for Mekonnen, as he left behind “parents, siblings, dear friends and the country that I also love so much.”

In 1982, he earned a diploma in electrical technology from a comprehensive technical school and worked in the Mugher cement and pre-fabrication factories. By age 19, he was leading a team of 10 technicians and was the electrician for tower cranes and the silo lifts at a cement factory. At the pre-fab factory, Mekonnen was the lead electromechanic, responsible for installing, testing and training operators for the pre-fab machinery.

His experience and success in these factories enabled him to earn the scholarship to study electronic instrumentation in Cuba.

Leaving Ethiopia in the mid-1980s was difficult and Mekonnen said he was ready to escape even before he left to study abroad, “if the opportunity presented itself.”

Since living and working in the U.S., Mekonnen said he has worked toward his goals to advance and use technology to improve his own life and the lives of others.

He said, “Though I missed the opportunity of going to college at the usual age due to economic and political pressures at home, I never stopped teaching myself the fields I love the most.”

Mekonnen also said that he realized that for him to achieve the goals he has for himself and others, he would need to broaden his education to include a strong foundation in the liberal arts.

Increasingly, he said, he began to see ways to serve others better through interdisciplinary approaches that combine technology and management, among other processes, and, equally as important, to understand the importance of a foundation in human development through art, history, literature and social science, to further enrich what he could offer.

“After exploring many alternative educational offerings online and in classroom arrangements, I decided I could best meet my educational, personal and professional goals by studying at Empire State College for my bachelor's degree,” said Mekonnen.

Mekonnen saved hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars by taking advantage of SUNY Empire’s individualized prior learning assessment program (iPLA), which awards students credit for college-level learning acquired in nontraditional ways.

Of the 124 credits required to complete a SUNY Empire bachelor’s degree, Mekonnen earned 82 through iPLA.

“I am very impressed with the college's reputation, creative course design and variety of offerings,” Mekonnen said. “I am even more impressed with the opportunities to expand my knowledge and thinking, especially the quality of teaching and assistance I've received from my professors and my mentor Dr. Jianhao Chen.”

Purchase, Hudson Valley

6:30 p.m., Wednesday, June 14, PepsiCo Theater, Purchase College, 735 Anderson Hill Road, Purchase, N.Y.

Of the nearly 3,500 degrees awarded statewide, a total of 154 degrees, 17 associate, 107 bachelor’s, 16 nursing and 14 master’s, will be conferred at the college’s Purchase commencement event.

The commencement speakers for Purchase are:

  • Michele Dendera, Bachelor of Science in Human Development with a concentration in psychology
  • Claudia Parrington, Master of Business Administration in Management and advanced certificate in global marketing.
Student Speaker Claudia Parrington surrounded by her family after the Purchase commencement event.Student Speaker Claudia Parrington surrounded by her family.

“I won’t lie, it was tough,” said Parrington. “My fellow graduates know what I’m talking about. I remember my first class in the MBA program.  We had to post a discussion, similar to what I had done while in undergrad. After seeing fellow students posting pages of information for a discussion, I closed my computer, cried and said I can’t do this. So I didn’t. I was so overwhelmed, I literally did not look at anything in the class, until I attended the first residency of the program, where I talked with fellow students and realized many of them felt the same. It wasn’t until that moment, hearing from others who were just as intimidated and overwhelmed as me, that I realized I wasn’t alone and I could do this.”

In making her remarks to her fellow graduates, Michele Dendera said, "I can speak about what SUNY Empire offered to most of us, a second chance. A second chance to prove to ourselves our families and our friends that we can accomplish anything we set our mind to. Hug your spouse, children, significant other, family and friends because most of these persons have given us a second chance, and probably a third. The best is yet to come."

Student speaker Michelle Dendera is congratulated by Vice Provost Tom Mackey at the college's commencement event at Purchase College.Vice Provost Tom Mackey congratulates student speaker Michele Dendera at the college's commencement at Purchase.

About Michele Dendera

Michele Dendera, 51, of Ellensville, N.Y., who enrolled in the Newburgh location of the college, is a nurse at ARC of Orange County, which serves more than 2,000 children and adults of all abilities in 29 locations throughout Orange County. According to her mentor, Wendy Chabon, Dendera is noted for her love of education and her career. She chose to study psychology, “to increase her knowledge and skills and to enhance her abilities on the job.”

She further describes Dendera as, “a hardworking, mature and responsible adult who took her work extremely seriously. She is extremely articulate and a very capable speaker. She participated in one of my study groups and was able to express herself very well, encouraging others to do the same.”

Dendera also found time to be a student Senate representative to bring attention to the issues of importance to college governance.

About Claudia Parrington

Claudia Parrington
Claudia Parrington

Claudia Parrington, 37, of Harrison, N.Y., earned her MBA in management after graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Business, Management and Economics from the college in 2014. She maintained a 3.0 grade point average or higher, despite working two jobs and starting a small crafting business as she pursued her MBA.

“When I first found SUNY Empire, I wasn't sure if I would be able to handle school, working two jobs and having a social life,” Parrington said. “I was mistaken, and I was able to do it all. At times, it was difficult, but I pushed on and continued to focus on the goal, obtaining my MBA.”

As acknowledged by her mentor, Parrington has not had an easy time of it. In foster care by age five, Parrington said she always struggled in school. She was adopted by “a wonderful couple,” who, unfortunately, both passed away before she reached high school. That made it all the more difficult, but she still continued on through two years of college. Feeling she had not done as well as she liked, she entered the workforce.

A saving grace, however, is that she discovered a ferocious work ethic. “While working, I developed a work ethic that meant if the office was open, I was going to work,” she said. “This

attitude followed me through the years so much that I have always been someone that can be depended on, no matter the situation.”

“Over the years, life continued and I was a happy person. When I started the MBA program, my grandmother became very ill and also passed on. She was a huge part of me obtaining my education, so even though my first semester in the MBA program was really difficult for me emotionally, I continued on and didn't let her death defeat me. She never would have wanted that. When I graduate in June, it will be for myself, but also for Gram, who was always encouraging, no matter what the obstacle.”

Linda Treinish, her primary mentor, said, “Claudia is a hard-working and dedicated student. She is a strong proponent of SUNY Empire and enthusiastically recommends the college to others. Claudia works hard to earn high grades, but her desire to learn is paramount. She is a focused and highly motivated lifelong learner.”

Manhattan – New York City

6:30 p.m., Thursday, June 15, David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, 10 Lincoln Center Plaza, New York, N.Y.

Of the nearly 3,500 degrees awarded statewide, a total of 921 degrees, 180 associate, 602 bachelor’s, 82 nursing and 57 master’s, will be conferred at the college’s New York City commencement event.

The commencement speakers for New York City are:

  • Jon-Marc McDonald, Bachelor of Science in Cultural Studies with a concentration in writing
  • Marissa Ibanez, Bachelor of Science in The Arts.
Student speakers Marissa Ibáñez and Jon-Marc McDonald at the Manhattan commencement event.Student speakers Marissa Ibáñez and Jon-Marc McDonald.

As a student with many full-time commitments, who transferred credit, Marissa Ibáñez said, “We may not have received our degrees in the ‘traditional timeline,’ but we kept our eyes on the prize. Today I would like to congratulate my fellow classmates of the graduating class of two thousand seventeen for uniquely achieving our goals, because we, the alumni of Empire State College, are the best.

“Keep setting new goals, because today is proof that what once seemed unattainable for us is attainable and, today, today is the first of many goals we will conquer.”

She also shared words of advice to current and future employers, “So when they are looking to hire individuals who can manage multiple projects, budgets and meet tight deadlines, look no further than the Empire State College student. We are individuals who are goal-oriented.”

Jon-Marc McDonald expressed his appreciation to Professor Ruth Goldberg, who mentored Jon-Marc, “You believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. You gave me the assurance and confidence to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. You quite literally changed the trajectory of my life.”

He also praised fellow members of the class of 2017, “Fellow graduates, the world is adrift in its own dissonance. It might seem in these trying times what we are unable to make a difference, but we’ve proven that’s not true. If you had the temerity, audacity and boldness to pursue your degree – any you did that – then you have the temerity, audacity and boldness to make a difference.”

About Jon-Marc McDonald

Jon-Marc McDonald
Jon-Marc McDonald

Jon-Marc McDonald, 40, of Manhattan, is a publicist, who saw a long-held dream realized when he was invited to share his paper, “Relatively Conscious: The Enduring Rage of Baldwin and the Education of a White Southern Baptist Queer,” at the International James Baldwin Conference in Paris, France, in May, 2016. The paper was subsequently published in the James Baldwin Review by the University of Manchester, Manchester, UK,

“It was a life-changing moment and one that would not have been possible were it not for the education I received at Empire State College,” he said.

It is because of that gratitude for the college that McDonald wanted to share his experiences with his graduating class. “It ESC where my passion for writing has not only been encouraged, but flourished as well.”

He served for two years as editor of the Metropolitan Review, SUNY Empire’s literary and arts journal.

His mentor, Ruth Goldberg, guided him in his decision to concentrate on writing, rather than communications. She told him that she noticed his excitement when talking about writing. In the fall, he will begin graduate school at Columbia University to pursue an MFA in creative writing.

McDonald completed his studies with a 4.0 GPA and was the recipient of the Joyce E. Elliot Pride Scholarship, founded by a former college administrator. The scholarship, for LGBTQ recipients, has special meaning for McDonald. In 1998, due to his sexuality, he was forced to resign from his role as the youngest campaign manager in the nation for a congressional campaign. “That my sexuality would … be a reason to receive a scholarship – a veritable celebration – is nearly too much to wrap my mind around. It does, indeed, get better.”

About Marissa Ibáñez.

Marissa Ibanez
Marissa Ibáñez.

Marissa Ibáñez, 42, of Brooklyn, N.Y., is a senior graphic designer for the Benefit and Pension Funds of New York’s largest union, 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East. A self-taught designer, she has earned five promotions over the past 20 years. She wanted to speak at commencement, “because I am living proof of the best of what SUNY Empire offers.”

She came to the college in 2014 with 50 transfer credits from New York University and the School of Visual Arts. She explained that she often works on film sets and photo studios across the state, and that the college has offered her the flexibility to pursue her work, while completing her degree. She has tried learning methods at the college including traditional classrooms, online through Moodle and independent studies. She also took part in the Adirondack residency, which she terms “especially meaningful” for a “city girl,” where she had the opportunity to craft a video of student work.

Labor Studies – Manhattan – New York City*

6:30 p.m., Friday, June 16, Alfred Lerner Hall, Columbia University, 2920 Broadway, New York, N.Y.

The commencement speakers for Labor Studies are:

  • Caleen Davis, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3
  • Steven Palumbo, United Association of Plumbers, Fitters, Welders & Service Technicians Local 1
  • Ironely Valdez, United Federation of Teachers Paraprofessionals Chapter
  • Michael Hicks, International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers.

* This commencement is only available to students who are enrolled in the college’s Harry Van Arsdale Jr. Center for Labor Studies.

Brookville – Long Island

11 a.m., Saturday, June 17, Tilles Center for the Performing Arts, LIU Post Campus, 720 Northern Boulevard, Brookville, N.Y.

Of the nearly 3,500 degrees awarded statewide, a total of 373 degrees, 49 associate, 223 bachelor’s, 78 nursing and 23 master’s, will be conferred at the college’s Long Island commencement event.

The commencement speakers for Long Island are:

  • Michael Contario, Associate in Science and Bachelor of Science in Public Affairs, with a concentration in counter-terrorism and intelligence studies
  • Christina Gugliero, Bachelor of Science in Community and Human Services, with a concentration in children and family services.
Student speakers Christina Gugliero and Michael Contario at the 2017 commencement event on Long Island
Christina Gugliero and Michael Contario at the commencement event on Long Island.

Since he was a small boy, Sargent Michael Contario wanted to fly. He enrolled with SUNY Empire because becoming a military aviator requires a degree and the college provided the flexibility he needed as a nontraditional student, spouse and parent.

“I needed an institution that would work with me,” he said. “My truly great professors saw me as a person and not a source of revenue. This made me strive for better grades. For me, with a degree in hand, I not only have the hope of leading others as a military officer, but the chance of completing a small boy’s dream, becoming a flyer. To my fellow graduates, congratulations, we have worked hard to be here. Enjoy your success and use this momentum to strive for your dreams.”

In her remarks to the audience, Gugliero thanked those who helped her complete her degree, including her parents and family, her mentors and professors and advisors at the college. She expressed her gratitude and appreciation for being able to attend a college created to educate adult and nontraditional students.

“Life would not be as enticing as it is, if it was void of all the struggles that we face and the hurdles that we conquer,” said Gugliero. “When life draws us down, we must continue to propel forward. Every struggle that we encounter provides us with the ability to learn more about ourselves and to become a stronger individual than we were before.”

About Michael Contario

Michael Contario
Michael Contario during recent joint training with the U.S. Coast Guard and Search and Rescue Canada.

Michael Contario, a resident of Moriches, N.Y., who graduates with a 4.0 GPA, is a staff sergeant and currently serves on active duty with the New York Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing, 103rd Rescue Squadron. 

The squadron carries the “Guardian Angel” designation. Guardian Angel squadrons are specially designed and dedicated to conduct personnel recovery across the full range of military operations, during all phases of joint, coalition and combined operations.

Contario is responsible for the proper functioning of the guardian angel’s “pararescue jumper” (PJ) aircrew flight equipment.

A PJ's primary function is as a personnel recovery specialist, with emergency medical capabilities in humanitarian and combat environments.

His previous duty assignment was with the U.S. Air Force Reserve’s 914th Airlift Wing, where he supported the wing’s mobility mission.

According to his current commander, “Michael’s character consistently demonstrates elevated levels of professionalism, outstanding motivation and a strong desire to excel, by priding himself on the ability to provide 106th Guardian Angel team with the finest possible life-saving equipment on a daily basis.” 

This was demonstrated during a recent night, open-water rescue, 1,300 miles of the coast of Massachusetts. Contario successfully packed two of the seven parachutes used during that rescue, which helped save the lives of two sailors.

Contario also is a seven-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, where he concluded his service as a sergeant in A Company, Anti-Terrorism Battalion, 4th Marine Division.

Contario enrolled with SUNY Empire after his last deployment in 2015. Since then he has been balancing his life between family, full-time military service and multiple temporary duties away from home. He consistently kept in contact with all his professors and was recognized by the faculty for his hard work and dedication.

He began his journey to degree completion 12 years ago and SUNY Empire faculty praise his perseverance and strong work ethic, which resulted in outstanding grades.

About Christina Gugliero

Christina Gugliero, of Massapequa, N.Y., graduates with a 3.94 GPA. She plans on becoming a social worker and continuing her education at the graduate level.

In December 2013, Gugliero experienced a life-changing event, when she attempted suicide. She used this experience as a positive motivator and decided, “I wanted to be the one to help others overcome their own obstacles.”

After her suicide attempt, she said many things came into perspective, above all her decision to dedicate her life to helping others.

Gugliero said that surviving a suicide attempt, and then managing depression, gave her first-hand knowledge of being hospitalized for mental illness.

Her experiences helped her develop empathy and sensitivity, strengths that she said continue to guide and motivate her to stand up on behalf of vulnerable people at work, at school and in her community.

As a SUNY Empire student, Gugliero took advantage of the opportunities to participate in the life of the college and served as an officer and member of the college’s student/alumni Community Action Student Club, and co-organized and participated in a children’s Christmas toy drive for Bethany House, a homeless shelter for young mothers and their children.

She has worked as a volunteer tutor for Catholic Charities and as a teacher’s assistant.

“Christina Gugliero’s bright spirit, her scholarly excellence, great heart and her steadfast willingness to stand up, suit up and show up make her a powerful example of strength, hope and kindness,” said Assistant Professor Donna Gaines, Gugliero’s primary mentor.

About SUNY Empire State College

Empire State College, the nontraditional, open college of the SUNY system yearly, educates nearly 19,000 students worldwide at eight international sites, more than 30 locations across the state of New York, online, as well as face to face and through a blend of both, at the associate, bachelor’s and master’s levels.

The average age of an undergraduate student at the college is 35 and graduate students’ average age is 40.

Most Empire State College students are working adults. Many are raising families and meeting civic commitments in the communities where they live, while studying part time.

In addition to awarding credit for prior college-level learning, the college pairs each undergraduate student with a faculty mentor who supports that student throughout his or her college career.

Working with their mentors, students design an individual degree program and engage in guided independent study and coursework on site, online or through a combination of both, which provides the flexibility for students to choose where, when and how to learn.

The college’s 78,000 alumni are active in their communities as entrepreneurs, politicians, business professionals, artists, nonprofit agency employees, teachers, veterans and active military, union members and more.

The college was first established in 1971 by the SUNY Board of Trustees with the encouragement of the late Ernest L. Boyer, chancellor of the SUNY system from 1970 to 1977. Boyer also served as United States commissioner of education during the administration of President Jimmy Carter and then as president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

More information about the college is available at