BMCC awarded over 3,500 associate degrees at morning and afternoon commencement ceremonies at The Theatre in Madison Square Garden on May 29.
Senior VP and Provost of Academic Affairs Karrin Wilks served as mace-bearer, leading a procession of faculty, administrators, staff and honor students to gather on the dais. Family and friends filled the theater of over 5,000 seats, calling out names and snapping photos of graduates as they made their way toward the stage.
BMCC President Antonio Pérez greeted the audience and congratulated the BMCC class of 2015.
“Today is a milestone in the legacy you are creating,” he said. “It is a legacy built on hard work, and it follows many paths.”
He noted that while the graduates received support from their families, professors and friends, they have given back, as well.
“You have served as peer tutors … You have volunteered on all kinds of special projects, including providing free tax preparation in your neighborhoods, and working in our city’s soup kitchens.”
BMCC students helped build housing through Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans, he said, adding that they collected funds for earthquake victims in Nepal and those affected by the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.
Graduates in the class of 2015, he said, "are changing the definition of ‘community’,” as they enter careers that are increasingly global. When he asked students born outside the United States to stand, about a fourth of the graduates did so, to wild applause.
Morning Presidential Medalist, Stephen Meringoff
Meringoff also serves as a co-managing partner of Himmel Plus Meringoff Properties, and is chairman of its property management affiliate, Meringoff Properties, Inc.
“Throughout his impressive career, Stephen’s vision has prevailed, and he never lost site of how an economy, how the real estate industry itself, reflects people’s lives on a very personal level,” the President said.
He talked about Meringoff’s role as a board member of the non-profit organization Pencil, and his gift of a Steinway piano to BMCC, as well as a recent and substantial gift to BMCC’s Out in Two program.
In his remarks, Meringoff mentioned “two of our children have taken courses at BMCC … and the dedication and commitment to excellence I’ve seen at the college motivated me to contribute to BMCC, especially to the Out in Two program.”
"Having worked with hundreds of young people," he told the graduates, “I believe passionately in our City and in the international community that you are going to return to. Congratulations for everything you have accomplished.”
Afternoon Presidential Medalist, Jay Lieberman
The afternoon recipient of the Presidential Medal was Jay Lieberman, trustee of The Derfner Foundation.
“Like many successful people, Jay keeps a very low profile,” said President Pérez.
After serving in the Military Airlift Command of the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War, Lieberman entered the real estate field and eventually became president of Derfner Management, working with the late Harold Derfner, who was his mentor and friend for many years.
“Together, they developed many of the building complexes you see on the Upper East Side, and throughout our city," the president said, adding that thanks to the vision and generosity of Jay Lieberman and The Derfner Foundation, BMCC now houses a new state-of-the-art communication lab, The Derfner Foundation Communication Center, and has been able to expand the number of students served by a successful BMCC program, Out in Two.
“Those who know him well know he loves his family, improving education for all students, and golf,” the president said in closing.
“When recently asked about himself he said, ‘I like to stay in the background’. This afternoon, we’re going to shine a light on Jay and thank him for his generosity by presenting him with this Presidential Medal from our college.”
As Lieberman accepted his medal, he said of BMCC, “I believe in the college’s commitment of offering quality education at a price that is affordable to a diverse population.”
He told the graduates, “Your hard work has paid off … Whatever you decide to do now, take with you the lessons you have learned at BMCC and apply them to help improve your community, our city, and beyond.”
Keynote speaker Charles Schumer and guest speakers
Special guest speakers throughout the two ceremonies included CUNY Trustees Freida D. Foster and Charles A. Shorter; CUNY Vice Chancellor for Budget and Finance Matthew Sapienza, and CUNY Interim Executive Vice Chancellor and University Provost Julia Wrigley.
Trustee Foster shared that she had worked at BMCC in the nineties, and noted that of the 3,500 graduates honored at this year’s commencement ceremonies, “1,200 are graduating with honors.”
She reminded the graduates that education "is the gateway to the world and beyond,” and quoted President Obama: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
Vice Chancellor Sapienza encouraged the graduates to stay focused on their future goals.
He reminded the audience that the New York Rangers playoff was scheduled for that evening in Madison Square Garden, and quoted professional hockey player Wayne Gretzky: “I don’t skate to where the puck is. I skate to where the puck is going.”
Keynote speaker Charles “Chuck” Schumer talked to the graduates about his own experience as a college student; his regret over foregoing an academic opportunity then completing law school and running for public office.
He explained the benefits of a tax credit law he sponsored that enables families to claim up to $2,500 to offset the cost of college tuition.
“About a third of those who were entitled, didn’t take the credit last year,” Schumer said, encouraging the graduates to take advantage of the savings, which he is seeking to expand.
In closing, he said, “My advice is simple. Go for it!”
Valedictorians and SGA President
Vice President of Student Affairs Marva Craig introduced BMCC Student Government Association President Okeema Humphrey, who advised the class of 2015 that whether they are “employed, unemployed, or moving on to higher education … use what you learned at BMCC to be the best version of yourself that you can be.”
Provost Wilks introduced the valedictorians.
Childhood Education graduate Eddy Rodriguez, the morning valedictorian, described his family’s experience leaving the Dominican Republic to make their home in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn.
“My mother had been pulled out of school in the third grade to work in the field alongside her family,” he said, adding that his sister sold fruit on the weekend with their father, “to make ends meet.”
Rodriguez, who wants to pursue a career as a middle school teacher in an inner city neighborhood, spoke highly of his experience at BMCC, and thanked one professor in particular, Cara Kronen; he attended her class, “Urban Schools in a Diverse American Society.”
As a conservative, says Rodriguez, “I was scared to opine in the classroom,” but in the end realized “we all had the same goal; to impact positive change for the educational experiences of kids in the inner city.”
Both Rodriguez and the afternoon valedictorian, Liberal Arts major John Portelli, maintained a 4.0 grade point average and are members of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society.
In her introduction of Portelli, Provost Wilks mentioned that he took part in BMCC's Accelerated Studies in Associates Programs (ASAP), as well as services including the Learning Resource Center, Open Computer labs and The Writing Center. His volunteer efforts included helping out with the Food Bank of New York.
Born in New York City, Portelli spent his high school years in Malta, before moving back there.
“Where I lived in Malta, everyone was Maltese, so the ideas and opinions weren’t so diverse, and a lack of diversity can create an atmosphere of intolerance,” he said, adding that he had the opposite experience at BMCC, where students hail from over 160 countries and classroom discussion have a global perspective.