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UB’s Class of ’15 upbeat on opportunities that beckon

A history student adjusted the strap on her shoe. An English major checked her lipstick in the mirrored surface on the back of her iPhone. A political science grad took a selfie wearing his mortarboard, giving a wide smile and an enthusiastic thumbs-up. The University at Buffalo’s Class of 2015 was ready to take on the world.

“I feel amazing,” said Christina Naylor, an international student from Jamaica receiving a bachelor’s degree in political science. “I just feel so blessed to have this opportunity. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for my whole life.”

As the students filed in to take their seats at Sunday’s commencement in Alumni Arena on the North Campus in Amherst, they could celebrate not just that they would soon be college graduates, but also that they would be entering the best job market our country has seen in 10 years.

“I feel confident,” said Sean Lyke, a media studies major. “It’s out there. You just have to go find it.”

With the economy improving and more baby boomers retiring, jobs are opening up and creating a more inviting labor market for recent grads. Unemployment rates are down and wages are increasing, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

In the Buffalo Niagara region, the most recent 5.9 percent jobless numbers show a return to levels typical just before the effects of the financial crisis took hold in 2009. National unemployment levels are returning to normal, too, currently down to 5.5 percent after peaking in double digits during the Great Recession.

Wages are on pace to grow faster this year than they have any year since 2007 in Buffalo Niagara, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Average weekly wages rose by 2.7 percent through the first nine months of 2014.

Only since 2007, when they rose by 3.9 percent, have they grown faster. Even after inflation, wages are still up about 1.1 percent, or about $9 per week.

On the downside, however, the latest crop of graduates will also face some of the highest student debt loads in history. Student loan debt has reached an all time high of $1.2 trillion and the average college student leaves school saddled with $30,000 in bills, according to credit reporting agency Experian.

Shad Osay acknowledged that debt, but said he is not worried, even as he heads to graduate school to rack up more.

“Yeah, I have debt, but it’s OK. So does everybody else,” he said.

The civil engineering graduate felt that his course of study was bound to pay off with a career successful enough to pay it all back.

Sunday’s commencement ceremony – UB’s 169th – conferred degrees upon more than 1,300 students. Overflow seating and a closed-circuit broadcast of the festivities were available in the Center for the Arts.

The ceremony was one of 15 commencement events honoring more than 5,600 students graduating from UB this year.

In her address, student speaker Abigail LaPlaca, a UB Presidential Scholar, Fulbright Scholar and summa cum laude Spanish major, urged her classmates to remember “through the good, the bad and the beautiful” why they came to school in the first place; whether it’s to fight for justice, innovation or equality.

Her plan is to fight for inner-city children at home and abroad as a teacher, so the next generation of students can someday stand in her shoes as a college graduate, she said.

“Higher education elicits a higher purpose,” LaPlaca said. “People say we come here to find ourselves. But more importantly, we come to figure out who we are willing to fight for the rest of our lives.”

Robert G. Wilmers, chairman and CEO of M&T Bank Corp., was awarded the Chancellor Charles P. Norton Medal, UB’s highest honor, for civic patriotism. The UB President’s Medal was awarded to John T. Ho, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate School, and Gerald S. Lippes, UB Council member emeritus, in recognition of “extraordinary service” to the university.

Christopher J. Scolese, director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, received an honorary doctorate of science, while David L. Shire, an Academy Award- and Grammy Award-winning composer and musician, received an honorary doctorate of music.

Also Sunday in Western New York, St. Bonaventure University held its 155th commencement ceremonies in the Reilly Center.

Tim Brown, a 1985 St. Bonaventure graduate and current president and CEO of bottled water company Nestlé Waters North America, gave the keynote address.

Brown, along with former university trustee the Fr. John F. O’Connor and philanthropist Sandra Arcara Richter received honorary doctorate degrees. On Saturday, St. Bonaventure commissioned six ROTC cadets to the status of second lieutenants in the Army.