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A cool commencement at UB

Alyssa Meeker emerged from the University at Buffalo’s Alumni Arena on Sunday afternoon with a fresh new bachelor’s degree, but she had failed to learn one lesson in her undergraduate years at UB: Snow is still a possibility in mid-May. Meeker, of Staten Island, opted for a pair of sandals and shorts under her blue graduate’s gown. And, as she searched for her family amid a crowd of thousands outside the arena following commencement ceremonies, white pellets descended from the dark sky.

The wintry blast lasted only for a few moments, as if to remind the freshly minted graduates of the frostier moments they experienced on campus.

“That was definitely unexpected,” said Meeker, shivering as snow collected in her blond hair.

Temitope Olalekan of New York City smiled widely and suggested the little flurry was only fitting.

“It just shows the beauty of Buffalo,” he said.

Olalekan and Meeker were among 1,450 undergraduate students who received degrees Sunday at UB. About 560 students from St. Bonaventure and 700 students from SUNY Alfred State College also took home diplomas on Sunday.

UB’s ceremony featured brief remarks by UB President Satish K. Tripathi and a host of elaborate mortar board messages.

One student wrote on her cap that it was “Time to be responsibull,” a reference to the UB mascot. A few students wrote that they were “Now Hotter By One Degree.” Olalekan’s cap read, “Game of Loans,” and he acknowledged in an interview that he had some debt to pay off in return for his degree in health and human services.

Roommates Danielle Vazquez of Holbrook, Suffolk County, and Taylor Woods of Hermitage, Pa. spent several hours designing the messages on their boards, with $16 in materials from a crafts store and some ideas from Pinterest, a social network tool. Vazquez wrote “Goal Digging” and decorated the board with tufts of burlap to provide depth and texture. The phrase captured her sense of wanting to take on challenges, she said. Vazquez, who ran cross country and track at UB, plans to enroll in the fall in a UB program that combines a master’s degree in public health with a master of business administration. Woods, who threw discus and hammer for the track team, created a glittering message, “What, like it’s hard?” – a reference to a quote by main character Elle Woods in the comedy movie “Legally Blonde.”

Taylor Woods is the youngest of four children to attend college, and in between taking photographs, her father, Keith, was struggling with the reality that there would be no more festive graduations to attend – at least not until the grandchildren start arriving.

When asked how he was feeling about his daughter finishing her degree, he said: “Terrible. It’s the last one. She’s my baby.”

The event was more bittersweet for Vazquez. Her mother, Celeste, has been struggling with cancer and had to be taken back to her hotel room during the ceremony because she wasn’t feeling well.

“I’m happy and everything, but I wish she could be here to share it. She’s happy for her daughter,” said Vazquez’s father, Ted, who arrived back at the arena in time to watch Danielle clutch her degree and shake Tripathi’s hand.

Danielle Vazquez said she was “super excited” to see her mom, even if she didn’t make it through the whole ceremony.

In his talk, Tripathi said that when students look back on their time at UB, they will remember above all the people “you lived and learned with here.”

“You will remember the most difficult concepts in your field because you learned them through conversations with peers who challenged you yo reach farther, dig deeper,” he said. “You will remember vigorously debating competing ideas and controversial theories with students who saw the world differently from you. You will remember the experience of getting to know a new roommate or lab partner from a culture very different from your own. And what you learned by looking through their eyes will continue to shape who you are and how you see the world in the future.”

At St. Bonaventure, author and New York Times journalist Dan Barry, a 1980 alumnus of the university, gave the keynote address inside Reilly Center, recalling the inspiration he received in an English class taught by longtime professor Rick Simpson, who is retiring after 46 years at St. Bonaventure.

“I have never forgotten the epiphany I had in his freshman honors English class,” Barry said, “the epiphany of how words, when properly assembled, can articulate what seems beyond articulation.” Tim Sanders, former chief solutions officer at Yahoo and a current sales and leadership keynote speaker, gave the commencement talk at Alfred State.

At UB, student speaker Yong Han Dorminic Ong, who won a contest to speak at commencement, got the crowd laughing when he described the class of 2016. “We no longer are undergrads. We are now unemployed. Let’s not kid ourselves,” he said. But Ong said graduates had earned their degrees and that their academic work was proof that they could be successful in the real world, too.

“This was step one. What’s next? Very simple: We get back to work,” he said.

After the ceremony, families gathered in the Center for the Arts or at the buffalo statue outside the arena for photographs.

Rose Gertz of Buffalo beamed with pride as one son, James, snapped pictures of two others, Aaron and Jacob – both of whom earned degrees from UB.

“It’s been a little trying,” said Gertz, who raised her sons as a single mother after her husband died.

Aaron earned a bachelor’s degree in geography and international trade, while Jacob received a pharmacy degree.

Inside the Center for the Arts, Minahil Khan of East Amherst and Sean Kaczmarek of West Seneca reminisced about their time as president and vice president of the Student Association at UB.

Commencement brought back random memories, such as 3 a.m. outings to grab a grilled cheese sandwich at Sizzles, an eatery on campus, or the regular hikes from her on-campus apartment to the SA office in the student union.

“You do think about how this is never going to happen again,” said Khan, who is heading to law school at Georgetown University in the fall. Kaczmarek won a coveted Marshall Scholarship and will begin study in September for a master’s degree in socila policy and social research from University College in London.

Both of them hope to return to Buffalo someday – despite the prospect of snow in May.

“Just seeing the university and the city improve so dramatically definitely inspires me to want to come back,” said Khan.

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com