Commencements abound across WNY - The Buffalo News
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Commencements abound across WNY

When La’Quisha Pompey was paralyzed by a stray bullet one summer day in 2006, her life changed – for the better, she says.

“Mentally, it’s changed my mind – I have a more positive mindset,” she said. “There’s a reason why I was there at that corner that day. I became closer with God and more spiritual.”

She spent her junior year at home, receiving one-on-one instruction from a tutor, while her friends carried on with their lives at McKinley High School.

“I could sit there in bed and mope and cry and be sad about the situation,” she said. “But if you think about it, that wouldn’t help anything.”

She returned to school for her senior year – as a different person, she said.

“Sophomore year, I was a bad kid. I got suspended. I was skipping class, talking back to the teachers, hanging out with friends,” Pompey said. “Senior year, I went back and got straight to business. I wasn’t goofing around or anything like that.”

“I think the shooting and being confined to a wheelchair just strengthened her resolve,” said Adriane Z. Williams, a senior academic adviser at Daemen College, whose sons attended McKinley with Pompey. “I think she was just determined this wheelchair was not going to get in her way.”

With the hopes of becoming a pediatrician, Pompey applied to Daemen. When Frank S. Williams, the dean of admissions, looked at her transcript and saw all the days of high school she had missed, he knew there was a story behind it.

“If schools were just going by SATs and grades, we would lose a lot of tremendous people,” he said. “She was a great person to have on campus. I think people would have thought she would have a chip on her shoulder. But she didn’t. Her faith and her ability to smile in the face of adversity was a real blessing.”

Not far into her freshman year at Daemen, Pompey became ill with MRSA. Bedridden with it, she had to leave school. Soon after, a surgery compounded her health problems.

“I really wanted to stay in college,” she said. “I was pretty sad I had to leave. I would be a year behind my peers.”

By the time the fall of what should have been her sophomore year arrived, she was back at Daemen.

“She made it,” said her best friend, Tiera Cunningham. “She still kept on. That’s what I admired.”

During her years at Daemen, Pompey decided to change majors. She graduated on Saturday with a degree in early childhood special education.

She was among more than 900 undergraduate and graduate students receiving degrees from Daemen in Kleinhans Music Hall on Saturday.

John Catsimatidis, a self-made billionaire, addressed them.

An immigrant from Greece, he grew up in Harlem. Catsimatidis studied at New York University and worked at a supermarket owned by a family friend, who lent him the money for the down payment on a small grocery store in Manhattan. Over the past 46 years, he has built on one success after another, ultimately building the Red Apple Group, which has been ranked by Forbes as one of the largest private companies in the world.

SUNY Buffalo State

More than 2,000 undergraduates received their degrees at SUNY Buffalo State during a morning and an afternoon ceremony on the Elmwood Avenue campus, and about 600 graduate students received their degrees in the evening.

Evelyn S. Lieberman, director of communications and external affairs at the Smithsonian Institution, spoke at the morning ceremony. She graduated from Buffalo State in 1966. Arnold L. Mitchem, founder of the Council for Opportunity in Education, addressed the graduates at the afternoon ceremony.

A host of challenges face those graduating from college, Mitchem said, from global warming to income inequality.

Within that framework, he said, it is important to acknowledge that some “melancholy” is buried within the mood of celebration that accompanies their graduation.

He spoke bluntly.

“Some of you will live long lives. Some of you, sadly, will die young,” he said. “Some of you will achieve great personal success. Some of you will never live up to your promise. Some of you will know inner peace; others will be plagued by inner turmoil. Some of you will give of yourselves to those around you, and some of you will be consumed with self. This unevenness is just a part of life.”

Mitchem likened each of their lives to a novel.

“The plot, of course, is what you do with the rest of your life,” he said.

Canisius College

Wolf Blitzer peppered his keynote address at Canisius College on Saturday with plenty of hometown shout-outs – from recalling his days as a boy reading both the Courier-Express and The Buffalo Evening News, to weaving in a plug for his high school alma mater, Kenmore West: “West is best!”

But what many of those about-to-be graduates from Canisius might have identified with even more were the CNN lead political anchor’s candid stories recalling his uncertainty over what career path to pursue after college, then again after graduate school – followed by his self-doubt early on in his first job.

As a foreign correspondent for Reuters, when Blitzer handed in his first story, his editor told him it was terrible.

“He asked me what my father did. I told him he was a home builder in Buffalo, N.Y.,” Blitzer told the more than 700 graduating seniors in Canisius’ Koessler Athletic Center. “With a straight face, he said to me, ‘Well, maybe you should think about being a home builder in Buffalo, N.Y., because you will never make it as a journalist. You don’t have what it takes.’ ”

Nevertheless, Blitzer persevered.

He learned “a few weeks later that this veteran news editor was just testing me to see if I really wanted to be a journalist. He was happy that I didn’t give up.”

Fredonia State College

More than 1,200 undergraduates and about 200 graduate students received their degrees at SUNY Fredonia on Saturday.

They heard from keynote speaker Sarah Ramirez, the co-founder of BeHealthy Tulare, a bilingual nonprofit group that educates people in her rural county in California about health, nutrition and the prevention of diet-related diseases.

“I realized that, no matter how small, rural, poor or insignificant my community was, it mattered,” she said. “This was my home. It shaped so much of who I was and motivated what I studied.”

Ramirez earned a doctorate from Stanford University. She said she has learned that resources and skills to promote health and long life were not equally available to rural, low-income, non-English speaking people.

“Do those things that propel you toward big questions – even if there is no simple answer,” she said. “The reality is that sometimes we won’t know exactly where we’re going and how we’re going to get there, but there is an important education in the process if we’re willing to pursue it.”

Bryant & Stratton

Graduates from Bryant & Stratton’s Amherst, Southtowns and Buffalo campuses, as well as the online education division, assembled in the Event Center on the Fairgrounds in Hamburg to receive their degrees.

Graduates heard from Kim Guthrie, a single mother of four who overcame unemployment, racism and homelessness to earn her bachelor’s degree in general management from the college.

The keynote address was given by the Rev. Darius G. Pridgen, pastor of True Bethel Baptist Church and the Ellicott District Common Council member.

This year, more than 850 people graduated from Bryant & Stratton, including more than 100 who earned a bachelor’s degree in business, health care or legal fields, and more than 700 who earned an associate degree in one of many majors offered by the college.

D’Youville College

The 58 students in D’Youville College’s first pharmacy class were among the nearly 800 students who graduated Saturday morning in Kleinhans Music Hall. Begun in 2010, the program now enrolls 262 students.

Bishop Richard J. Malone delivered the keynote address and received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.

Also receiving honorary degrees were Cheryl A. Klass, president of Women & Children’s Hospital, and David Zapfel, executive director of Gerard Place, a community agency on the East Side.

SUNY Geneseo

Christopher C. Dahl, the longtime president of SUNY Geneseo, delivered the keynote address to graduates there at both the morning and afternoon ceremonies.

Dahl, an English professor, has served more than 18 years as president of Geneseo. He will retire in June.

Honorary degrees were awarded to Norman P. Neureiter, the director of the Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Thomas L. Purce, president of the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.

Alfred University

David E. Sanger, national security correspondent for the New York Times, delivered the commencement address at Alfred University’s McClane Center.

He urged the more than 500 graduates to use their degrees as more than a necessary step toward getting a job.

“Think about that degree as something more than just a document to frame next week,” he said. “It’s a first-class ticket to the adventure of a lifetime. There are so many places, so many opportunities for all of you to explore, that it’s a bit daunting to know where to start.”

Many graduates, he said, likely will change direction more than once – and that’s OK, he said.

“But I want you to think of this diploma as an engraved invitation to keep asking questions – to keep asking why,” Sanger said.


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