Saint Michael’s presents diplomas to 360 students during 116th Commencement
Speakers exhort Class of 2023 to keep "fire in belly' and "bring our world out there" as President Sterritt presides over last such ceremony at the helm
Saint Michael’s College ignited the “fire in the belly” that powered the Class of 2023 through a pandemic toward purposeful lives after College – much as it propelled Commencement speaker Jay Bellissimo ’87 to career success as a business and technology innovator dedicated to helping others.
That was the message from the onetime IBM global executive and former Saint Michael’s hockey star who addressed 360 Saint Michael’s graduates of the Class of 2023 in the Ross Sports Center for the College’s 116th Commencement on May 14 – the last such ceremony for retiring President Lorraine Sterritt.
Sterritt told graduates that their college years have prepared them well to “to think, to learn and to care.” She said it was an emotional day for her since “this is a hard place to leave, but I will carry into my retirement very fond memories of the Class of 2023,” because “we are graduating together!”
In his address, Bellissimo stressed hard work, faith, risk-taking and aiming high – all things his own Saint Michael’s mentors, many present on Sunday – emphasized and modeled in his student days.
“Just make sure you love what you do and do what you love, and always have that fire in the belly to give it your best shot wherever your interests may lie,” he told 315 undergraduates and 45 graduate students. Senior Class Speaker Katie Escobedo spoke of the magical world that Saint Michael’s represents and urged classmates to “bring our world out there.”
This year’s return to the traditional Ross Sports Center venue on Mother’s Day restored familiar rhythms after several pandemic years of outdoor or remote ceremonies, including a rainy experience last May. Sunday’s weather provided mostly sun even with a cool morning breeze as the class assembled before the ceremony.
It had warmed with more sun by shortly after noon when the ceremony ended – ideal for a reception on the main Library Lawn for faculty and families to mingle afterward. The group of 4.0 students led the class out of the Ross Sports Center followed by the dais party and families. Among those on the dais along with trustees and honorees was former Saint Michael’s President Jack Neuhauser.
Receiving an honorary doctorate along with the speaker Bellissimo was former Trustee Michael McGrath, a successful global management, consultant, author and presenter on business strategy and decision-making who guided key initiatives for 19 years as a Trustees leader.
The graduates assembled about an hour prior to the 10 a.m. Commencement for the traditional procession. This year for the first time, however, they started in the outdoor courtyard between Alliot and Joyce/Dion where Dean of Students and VP Ellinwood and others organized, rallied and lined them up. From there they marched in front of Alliot where they picked up the dais party, then proceeded (led by bagpipers) through a gauntlet of cheering faculty by the chapel and then past cheering family members and staff and into Ross.
As ever, academic achievement was front and center. As the day’s top prizes, the Katherine Fairbanks Memorial Award and the Father Prevel Memorial Award annually go to students “who demonstrate commitment and achievement related to the intellectual, spiritual, moral and social values of Saint Michael’s College.”
The Fairbanks winner this year was Katherine Escobedo, who also was the class speaker chosen by her classmates, moving the audience to a standing ovation for her personal reflection about why she loves Saint Michael’s.
Escobedo, from New Rochelle, NY, is a Summa Cum Laude graduate with double majors in psychology and sociology and a minor in business administration. A gifted student-athlete as senior captain and starting goalkeeper of the women’s soccer team, she was active with the Student Athletic Advisory Committee, as a tour guide and Admissions student worker, with Campus Ministry, as an advanced EMT with Saint Michael’s Fire & Rescue, and an inductee into multiple national academic honor societies including Phi Beta Kappa. She raised $30,000 in 2022 to help find cures for children with cancer, and will work at UVM Medical Center’s Emergency Department after graduating with plans to attend paramedic school.
The Prevel Award went to Enzo “Jeson” Li, of Bennington, VT, who majored in political science and history with four minors in public health, global studies, economics and public history. He distinguished himself in volunteer work for MOVE, Residence Life, the Registrar’s Office, MLK Jr. Society, student government, the Centers for Global Engagement and for Student Diversity, Empowerment and Community, and the Admission office. He studied as a Freeman scholar in South Korea, was active in the Student Global AIDS campaign and was a Fulbright alternate.
The day’s Master of Ceremonies Jeffrey Trumbower, vice president for academic affairs, also commended those 45 seniors completing the College Honors program, along with the 4.0 valedictory group who at the end led the class from the commencement site. This year’s 4.0 GPA students were: Alyssa Bonaro, Brook Hodgeman, Sydney Molinaro Nelson, and Elizabeth Syverson.
Classmates greeted the popular and broadly accomplished undergraduate speaker Escobedo with enthusiasm even before she spoke, and more afterward as they joined the full assembly in the standing ovation.
She spoke of the courtesies and service mindset and small college friendliness that set Saint Michael’s apart, using personal or insider examples among her classmates or describing experiences that generations of Saint Michael’s alumni have in common. She noted that hers was “the last class to have known what Saint Michael’s was like before, during and after COVID…. if we can make it through that, we can make it through anything.”
Escobedo reflected warmly on the ways Saint Michael’s people are kind to one another as well as to those they encounter off campus. “I think we can recognize that we are our own little world here. But I beg you, bring our world out there,” she said. “Create new communities [and] continue to stand up for what you believe in.”
The graduate address just prior to Escobedo’s was from Oumar Djigo, of Dakar, Senegal, receiving his master’s in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). He spoke of the importance at Saint Michael’s and other colleges of the Fulbright program that brought him to Saint Michael’s, and of the College’s many resources to help embrace global citizens through the Center for Global Engagement. He joked about adjusting to the cold winters coming from Africa, saying “to make a long story short, I survived, I made it.” The lesson for him is to shut off any gloomy internal voices and face one’s fears head-on. He urged people to have a “growth mindset,” concluding, “When you set clear goals and apply discipline, dedication and hard work, you will maximize your chances to grow and make a difference.”
Sponsoring the main Commencement speaker, and seated beside him on the dais, was his beloved and respected former hockey coach Lou DiMasi, now a student success advisor in the College’s new Purposeful Learning office. Jerry Flanagan ’71, longtime and now interim enrollment VP, along with Angie Armour ’99, executive director of Institutional Advancement, introduced the speaker and read his biography and citation. They told of Bellissimo’s 35-year career as a technology industry leader committed to making people’s lives better.
After voicing his enthusiasm for Escobedo’s “awesome” words as a tough act to follow, Bellissimo shared with graduates important life lessons that he absorbed from his parents, coaches and St. Mike’s (or later, business) mentors. Among them: that “nothing replaces hard work,” and “there are no shortcuts in life” and also, that “no one owes you anything in life” so “never be outworked and thrive off adversity.”
He told the class “in a way you’ve already won” given their persevering through pandemic. He urged them to “never stop learning,” noting that Saint Michael’s has given them the proper tools for that, as it did for him. He exhorted them to “be a sponge of new experiences” and said that, while most will likely fail more than once in coming careers and life, as he has from time to time, if they are “resilient and tenacious” and learn from those failures, they will come out stronger. He closed by sharing about the importance of faith, which he called his personal “North Star” through challenges – a faith strengthened by his Saint Michael’s mentors and their example. “This is your time… to make your mark in life… just have a purpose, be curious and explore as you experience life to the fullest, and try to enrich the lives of those around you,” the speaker said.
Reading graduates’ names as they received diplomas to cheers from family and friends for a bit over half an hour (as Preisdent Sterritt congratulated each individual) were Dean of Faculty Gretchen Galbraith and Associate Dean Tim Mackin.
As the final speaker of the day — once graduates had moved their tassels and President Sterritt formally had proclaimed them as graduates — Suzanne Leous, president of the College Alumni Association Board, welcomed the new graduates to the alumni ranks, urging them to use the resources of the alumni network and stay connected. She told of the feeling of homecoming she had flying in to Vermont for this occasion even after all these years, and said she hoped graduates always will feel, as she does, that coming back to Saint Michael’s is like coming home.
Other ceremony highlights in brief: Elizabeth Cupo ‘23 led singing of the National Anthem; Fr. Brian Cummings, SSE ’86, director of Edmundite Campus Ministry, offered the Invocation, while Campus Minister Fr. Marcel Rainville, S.S.E. ’67 gave the Benediction.
The ceremony was dedicated to retiring or departing faculty: D.E. Lorraine Sterritt (president); Valerie Bang-Jensen (education), James Hefferon (mathematics), Kristin Juel (French), Richard Kujawa (geography/environmental studies & science), and Christina Root (English). The ceremony also was in memory of a faculty member who died last year, Robert Niemi (English).
An outdoor reception for graduates, families and faculty/staff followed the ceremony on the Library lawn. By then the sun was up and the temperature had warmed as faculty gathered around tables by major to greet their graduates with their families. Sodexo provided catered snacks and beverages. (Read below photo about Saturday Baccalaureate).
Bishop Coyne presides at Saturday Baccalaureate
Late Saturday afternoon in the Chapel of Saint Michael the Archangel the day before Commencement, Burlington Bishop Christopher Coyne presided at the well-attended Baccalaureate Mass at 4 p.m. Several of the resident Saint Michael’s Edmundites joined him to concelebrate on the altar.
Also present were President Sterritt with her husband, Bert, plus graduates and their families filling the main nave to near capacity. Music was from Jerome Monachino ‘91 and his liturgical ensemble/choir.
The bishop in his homily spoke of the different types of hope – practical, wishful, illusory and transcendental. He told graduates to be “ready to witness” to their personal faith experiences as Saint Paul did in the Mass readings for the occasion. He shared a touching personal story about a pivotal moment of consolation and transcendental hope that he experienced as a teen when his brother died of a brain tumor.
Bishop Coyne said when that happened, he was angry at God, until quite unexpectedly he had “an experience of the Divine” that communicated to him, mysteriously and peacefully, but without a doubt, a distinct twofold message: “You are not alone in this world” and, “Your brother lives.” That became, and remains, his personal reason for hope through faith in Jesus, the Bishop said.
Near the end of the ceremony, he offered a special blessing for President Sterritt and thanked her for her years of service to Saint Michael’s.