Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N) celebrated the graduation of 4,086 students at its Virtual Graduate Recognition Ceremony on Wednesday, May 20, in lieu of its traditional springtime commencement ceremony, which will be held at a later date due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The virtual celebration included inspiring messages from Chancellor Nancy Cantor, Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka, U.S. Senator Cory Booker, student speaker Esder Chong (School of Arts and Sciences, ‘20), and Angela “Angie” Martinez.
A renowned media personality, recording artist, author, and philanthropist, Martinez is this year’s commencement speaker. Before sharing words of encouragement with the Class of 2020, she took a brief stroll down memory lane, reminiscing about her humanitarian trip to Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. In March 2018, Martinez joined a group of RU-N students, faculty, and staff to document their deployment of solar-energy kits on the rooftops of buildings to bring light and hope to some of Puerto Rico’s most devastated towns. Students at Newark’s Malcolm X Shabazz High School pre-assembled the kits.
“When I think about Rutgers University–Newark, … [the power of community] is the first thing I think about,” Martinez shared. “From the moment that I stepped onto the [Rutgers-Newark] campus, I knew that I was a part of something special and important, and I could sense the magic of this community, not just on the campus, but also in the city of Newark.”
“[O]n that trip [to Puerto Rico], … I saw [from the Rutgers-Newark students] a genuine compassion and determination and heart and a deep commitment to community, even if that community was 15 hundred miles away from Newark … And what I realize now … looking back and witnessing that spirit,” Martinez continued, “is that this community, with that same resolve, determination, and innovation, can overcome anything together. And that includes a global crisis that has literally turned our lives upside down.”
Martinez then reminded the graduates to plan, prepare, arm themselves with the tools they will need to attain their goals, and seek support from the community they created at Rutgers-Newark. She also urged them to remember this challenging moment because equally important as planning and preparation, is how well they handle adversity and life’s inevitable curve balls. These trying times have given them an opportunity “to look at the world through a new set of lenses,” Martinez offered, “[because] the Class of 2020 will forever understand that real life doesn’t always happen the way we plan it.”
Chong’s speech also exulted the exceptionalism of the RU-N community, stating, “It is at Rutgers-Newark and among the Class of 2020 where I have encountered some of the strongest and most courageous students who have advocated for our communities with a sense of purpose and urgency.” She implored her classmates to continue to be the class with which she has grown familiar, “the ones who persist in face of the odds, the ones who find alternative solutions and defy expectations.” In times of uncertainty like present circumstances, strength and courage are critical. “Let us rise to that occasion [with strength and courage]. The world depends on it,” Chong insisted.
A Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipient and advocate for undocumented immigrants, Chong was named a Schwarzman Scholar in 2019. The Schwarzman Scholar program gives individuals the opportunity to develop their leadership skills and professional networks through a one-year master’s degree at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. In 2018, Chong attended the State of the Union address in Washington, DC as a guest of U.S. Representative Frank Pallone.
In her remarks, Chancellor Cantor assured the graduates that the Virtual Graduate Recognition Ceremony was just the beginning of the ways in which Rutgers-Newark will be celebrating the Class of 2020. An in-person event will occur as soon as responsibly possible, at which time Martinez will receive an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree. In the meantime, the ongoing celebration includes a weekly series of graduates’ personal stories posted online and continued access to the Virtual Graduate Recognition Ceremony, which includes an individualized recognition of members of the graduating class.