At Rutgers-Newark Commencement, Graduates Urged to Draw From Experience and Community

Maxim Ryazansky

At Rutgers-Newark’s commencement ceremony,  graduates were encouraged  to celebrate their own stories—and use them as motivation to improve life for themselves and others.

An estimated 15,000 people attended the event, held at the Prudential Center. Among the Class of 2023, 1,635 graduates crossed the stage to receive degrees.

The keynote speaker was boundary-breaking jazz artist Terence Blanchard, who in 2022  became the first Black composer to have an opera staged at the Metropolitan Opera House and win two Oscar nominations for best film score, including his most recent, “The Woman King.’’  Much of his work has centered on the effects of racism and the struggle for human rights.

Wayne Winborne, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark, introduced Blanchard as “the greatest composer alive” and “the most important musician of his generation.’’

Blanchard told his own story of growing up poor in New Orleans, with parents who sacrificed to buy him music lessons at a time when many discouraged him from pursuing jazz, insisting he’d never make any money.

“Those same people who told me that ask for tickets now,’’ joked Blanchard, who studied music at Rutgers New Brunswick in the early 1980s, when he began touring with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra.

“Those people lacked courage,’’ he said.“Following my passion and desire has created a career beyond my belief…If I can do this, you can do so much more, in so many areas and walks of life.’’

Blanchard described how his own success allowed him to create opportunities for others. His first opera at the Met, “Fire Shut up in My Bones,’’ based on a memoir by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, provided a chance for Black opera singers and musicians to appear on a stage where they had been excluded for more than a century. Among them was an accomplished baritone who had been working at the opera house as an usher.

“I’ve always had a strong commitment to my community and the success of everyone else,’’ he said, urging the graduates to do the same.

“We’re supposed to leave this place better than we found it,’’ he added.

Blanchard closed his address by telling the grads, “The only thing I ask of all of you all is to stay curious, stay involved, continue to learn, continue to share, continue to love, and continue to be humble and hold on to you faith.’’

During her speech, Chancellor Nancy Cantor underscored the importance of the graduates’ personal stories and what they reflect about Rutgers-Newark.

“Educational excellence at Rutgers-Newark is built on the diverse lived experiences you all bring to our collective table, and we never want you or us to forget that foundation,’’ said Cantor. ““That mix of forward-thinking and rootedness is in your DNA.’’ 

Cantor highlighted several students whose experiences propelled them to earn their degrees. These included Gia Bialoglowka, a Brazilian immigrant raised in Newark, whose work with the Urban Agricultural Cooperative blends advocacy, social work and education.

She also mentioned Lavor Brown, an Army Reservist and one of 50 veterans or active duty military graduates, who emigrated from Jamaica as a child. He enrolled at the start of his military career, maintaining a 3.966 GPA, and continued after being deployed overseas in 2020. Brown went on to earn his accounting degree and a full-time position at KPMG.

During commencement, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka gave an impassioned speech against censorship, singling out Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who a day earlier had ended state funding for diversity, equity and inclusion programs in higher education.

“I wish someone would take a picture of this room and we can email them to Governor DeSantis… let him see what America really looks like, how beautiful we are, in multiple languages and multiple religions…this is America,’’ Baraka exhorted. “And no matter how many books he bans, he can’t erase your journey, the weightiness of your footsteps, of your family’s efforts to get you in these seats today, your history, your culture, your language, you can’t unlearn the learning.”

“God Bless you Class of 2023, the world needs you now more than it ever did,’’ Baraka told them in closing.

Rutgers University President Jonathan Holloway gave the graduates three words to guide them: love, gratitude and responsibility.

“Love is hard work, it demands integrity and commitment,’’ said Holloway. Gratitude, he added, is “the glue that holds community together.’’

He urged the graduates to bridge divisions. “In this era where we are so quick to blame each other, how about we work together to find solutions?”

Also speaking at the ceremony was graduate student Zion Critchlow, who obtained his masters in psychology. He shared the story of finding his identity as a Black gay man, who found mentorship from a RU-N professor, and extolled the importance of taking care of yourself. 

Undergraduate student speaker Nayara De Assisfortunatoagra, who received a degree in accounting and finance, emphasized the power of community and the collective voice. 

The ceremony also included a musical performance by students of Professor Stefon Harris, with Marvin Peralte on keyboards and vocalist Kaiel Maynor, whose song lyrics drew from the Maya Angelou poem "Still I Rise.''

Find video profiles of Class of 2023 members here.