Outrage over graduation change grows

Students meet with the president and administrators, petition collects 4,000 signatures, issues remain unresolved

More stories from Monica Sarmiento

Kenise Brown

More stories from Kenise Brown

Update: Dr. Henderson informed the community in a March 28 email that there will be one large Commencement ceremony at the Prudential Center on May 16. Students will have their individual names called and all guests will be welcome. Read here.

Dozens of students met outside Hepburn Hall before gathering outside President Sue Henderson’s conference room on Tuesday, March 26 where, inside, she was meeting with the Senior Class E-board discussing last week’s changes to the commencement ceremonies.

In the hall, students addressed Dr. Jimmy Jung, vice president of Student Affairs, with their anger over the lack of communication between administration and the graduating class.

Marisol Melendez told the crowd that she came back to school after 15 years and has maintained a 3.9 GPA. She wonders how she’ll tell her four children that they all cannot see her walk on stage because of the limited number of tickets that will be available for graduates’ guests. “I deserve this and I’m going to fight for this,” Melendez said.

Many students have expressed outrage over the decision to have smaller ceremonies on NJCU campuses during the weeks leading up to the May 16 Commencement at the Prudential Center. Breaking from tradition, students will no longer walk on the stage and hear their name called at the Prudential ceremony.

A change.org petition titled “NJCU Graduates Should Walk For Commencement 5/16/19,” created on March 20 now has over 4,000 signatures.

Amelia Valentin, a Music major, said that having a ceremony by department will not be good for the school she is in. “I’m under the College of Arts and Science, that is the biggest. I don’t think we can have unlimited tickets, not in Margaret Williams Theatre. We can’t just have everyone in there. It’s like a fire hazard.”

Valentin also said that she does not want her siblings or other students to go through the issue with commencement like she is.

“I have four younger siblings who want to go to college one day. One of them is coming next year. So I don’t want my sister to not see me graduate and only my parents. A lot of people who are not seniors yet or are underclassmen, a lot of people who want to go to this school are seeing the situation and it’s not looking good right now. Basically what they are seeing is that the seniors want something and they are not being heard.”

“I understand that the [tickets] are an issue and we’re trying to find a way that.,. as many people from your family and friends can see you walk across stage,” Dr. Jung said. He also said that the rumor that only two tickets were available was “never real…. We are trying to improve or increase the number of students who are able to attend. We’re working on a graduation that doesn’t have any tickets.”

A few students accused Dr. Henderson of not caring about the graduates, saying that they hardly see her at events. “I haven’t seen her since my sophomore year,” one student called out from the crowd.

“I think the president cares.… [graduates] were mad last year but the number of graduates have grown in the last five years. Yes, [this information] should’ve come out earlier, but we were running around trying to make it fit. Trying to find places. There should’ve have been more communication,” Dr. Jung said.


Daniel Torrez, who ran for the NJCU Men’s Cross Country 2015-2016 Team, told Dr. Jung “I’ve got 250 people in my family. No one graduated college. Me being here is the first one to do it. I feel like y’all shouldn’t do that because we got family coming out of the country. It’s many of us that worked hard. I know I worked hard. A lot has happened to me in one month. Four years [has] been a crazy process but I’m still here…. I want the whole world to see me graduate.”

Torrez later said that he and other students have brought awards and recognition to the university.

“You’ve got athletes standing around here. Some of us [brought] championships into this school. If you search my name up, I’m on Google.” He pointed at other students who competed in championships for NJCU.

After the nearly two hour meeting with President Henderson, Nickia Williams, Senior Class President, gave an overview to the crowd.

“We voiced everyone’s concerns about ticketing…. financial options and everything. They are going to look in for new options in terms of location, every student gets the amount of tickets they want, so they are not limited to two. They want to make sure you are meeting your requirements in terms of how many people you need. They want to have a venue that has everybody. We have like 1,200 students graduating, that is more than we anticipated. They are going to come back to us and say either we are going to have two ceremonies or we are going to accomodate for one.”

An open forum allows students to speak

Students met with Jodi Bailey, interim associate vice president for Student Affairs, Dr. Jung, Jeff Dessources, director of Campus Life, and other administrators at an open forum on Wednesday, March 27 to further discuss commencement changes. President Henderson was not present.

Addressing issues from last year’s ceremony

Bailey, cited issues with the newly installed sound system at last year’s commencement ceremony at Prudential Center. The sound system was not the only problem, however.

“You guys have been very honest with us so can I be very honest with you about some of our struggles besides Prudential.” Bailey said. “Students for the last few years have been very rude to each other. People are leaving. People are yelling. There are fights in the audience. It’s rude to everybody. And it makes us look bad. We’ve had state legislators say that ‘we’re not coming to your ceremony’ and that ‘we’re not going to sponsor particular things.’”

Marisol Melendez responded, “Do you feel that smaller ceremonies is going to fix that issue? Will we not have more fights now that I have 100 people coming from me and they’re not all going to be in there?”

Miscommunication around the university

Another student said that after last week’s email announcing the change was sent out, she called the university registrar office for more information. She was told that they were not aware of the changes.

“After last week when the petition came out…. I took it upon myself to call the registrar’s office just to see what’s going on with commencement. They said themselves last week the day before you announced it that they had no idea that there were going to be separate ceremonies. They referred me to call my department and find out from them…. because anyone who would know would be our department since, like you said, our faculty and deans are the ones fighting for this. But when I called my department, they too had no idea what this was about. You see the inconsistency there? How should they not know about this when supposedly they’re fighting for it?”

Bailey told the student that they were right, and that “communication has been horrible. The registrar’s office has been in the commencement meetings. Every single person at this table have been. I don’t know why that was their answer. I’m sorry for that. I don’t know why the departments don’t know because the school deans have representatives that we specifically asked to be there for these reasons to help [share] this information.”

“What I can tell you is that we haven’t done that well at all…. I don’t know why we can’t as a university get on the same page to have conversations,” Bailey said. “I don’t know why they weren’t able to give you an answer because they’ve been there from the get-go. And that’s not fair to you.”

Students present an ultimatum

A number of students were adamant that they wanted the one ceremony at Prudential ceremony and no smaller ceremonies at all

Dessources chimed in to ask students if they would be involved or open to other options if if having only one ceremony isn’t feasible. “I think it’s very clear that students that are representing here are asking the very clear question of the institution and administration… but I think it’s also important that students…. in this room are to make it very clear what their thoughts are and if their thoughts are one or nothing at all, then that’s something that I want to clarify on your end.”

The open forum ended with no real conclusion to the issues. Bailey assured students that she would go back to Dr. Henderson and the executive board. “I’m not asking for multiple days, I’m not asking for a week…. But we need a little time…. Please just give us a moment to go back.”

Holding back tears, she said “I hear you, I really do. It breaks me up to hear what you struggle with and I want to go and represent you the right way.”

The Gothic Times reached out to President Henderson for a comment on Tuesday’s meeting and the open forum. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to the committee about today’s meeting,” Dr. Henderson said over the phone. ”We had a productive, healthy conversation.”

Rafael Perez, Esq., Chairperson of the NJCU Board of Trustees could not be reached for comment.

Students speak out

Suehaydee Rosa, a Digital Design and Illustration major, suggested separating ceremonies based on degrees. “If there are going to be different ceremonies, maybe separating according to classmen and not departments. Maybe a ceremony for doctors and masters in one and bachelors in the other. The bachelor class is usually the biggest one anyway.” –

Marisol Melendez pointed out the issue of students leaving during the ceremony. “If one of the issues is that if a department is awarded, they leave, them that’s very disrespectful. We don’t want the last department left with nobody at Prudential. If there’s a possibility no one leaves until after graduation, then we can as one support one another.”

Jessica Gilbert, Major in Graphic Design, mentioned the petition to Jung and said that the amount who signed should prove the seniors argument, “Over 3,000 people are sitting there saying no. No. So that gotta say somewhere that someone is wrong. If 3,000 people say something is wrong then something is wrong. 16 people [on the Commencement Committee] shouldn’t be deciding that.”

Maglinda Perez, who currently works in University Advancement and will also be graduating this May said that this is difficult for people including graduates who work: “I’ve been going to school for eight years. I have my daughter, and my family coming from out of town. Now I have to take two days off from work in order to attend both graduations. Two days pay or two days vacation, two days sick day. People who work hours can’t take two days that are back to back.“

Antoinette Austin, a Fire Science Major wants her coworkers to see her graduate. “We all deserve to walk across the stage. I work at the fire department. The whole department coming through. How am I going to tell them only two can come?”

Austin also said that there’s no point of a ceremony at the Margaret Williams theatre if you still have to come back to school after graduation for finals. “Why [do] you [have] to graduate, take tests, then still go to Prudential Center?”

Do you want to comment on NJCU’s changes to commencement? Were you at the 2018 commencement ceremonies? The Gothic Times wants to hear from you. Email Monica Sarmiento, Editor-in-Chief, at [email protected]