GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — The biggest group of December graduates in the history of Richard Stockton College of New Jersey got their degrees Sunday, earning cheers from a crowd that packed the college’s sports center.
Stockton gave out an estimated 776 bachelor’s degrees and 95 advanced degrees to graduates who finished during the college’s summer or fall sessions. Those graduates drew enough family, friends and admirers to fill up the sports center, a building nicknamed “Big Blue” and set up Sunday to seat 4,000 to 5,000 people, with only a few chairs to spare.
Still, as big as the numbers were, Stockton is small enough that each graduate’s name was called, and each one got a handshake from the college president, Herman J. Saatkamp Jr. — who earlier had called this the school’s busiest December graduation ever.
But speaking of big, that moment of personal congratulations — along with the rest of the graduation — was shown on the two giant TV screens at the front of the gym.
Some of the graduates got small ripples of clapping as their names were called, and others got more raucous reactions from their personal cheering sections. But before anyone got their applause and awards, they got advice from a parade of speakers.
The main address came from Emari DiGiorgio, an English professor at Stockton and a published poet. Stockton’s provost, Harvey Kesselman, introduced her and noted that her “graduate degree is from New York University — which is a good second choice to her undergraduate degree from Stockton.”
DiGiorgio, of Ventnor, started with a story about one of her current students who had just found out that her teacher was the featured speaker at graduation.
“She said to me, ‘It’s like you’re someone famous — because you’re not that old,’” DiGiorgio said, smiling and adding that just 10 years ago, she was still a full semester short of graduating from Stockton herself, and haphazardly applying to graduate schools.
Now she’s an award-winning professor — New Jersey’s State Council on the Arts named her a “Distinguished Teaching Artist” earlier this year.
As several other speakers did, DiGiorgio noted some of the complexities of the world that these new graduates are entering.
“Fiscal cliff, school shootings, bombs over Gaza,” she said. “But I don’t believe any generation has had it easy. I’m skeptical of any ‘golden age’ — especially (one) built on the backs of the underprivileged.”
Still, she told the students that they can help create better times in the future, and not just for themselves.
“This is your world, and your life, and both are extremely malleable,” she said. “Take your degree and repair this planet.”
The student speaker at the ceremony, A.J. Vervoort, had served as president of the Stockton’s Student Senate. But Vervoort said he almost didn’t go to the school, because he was accepted at another college and planning to go there until he decided at the last minute to take a look at Stockton.
“After fighting for a parking spot, I joined the tour group,” he said, and he was impressed by the energy he found on the college’s heavily wooded campus. And he has stayed impressed, particularly in his last months before his graduation.
“After observing the Stockton community come together following Hurricane Sandy, my initial impressions were confirmed,” Vervoort said, remembering a “food drive, clothing drive, blood drive” and more attempts to help those affected by the October storm.
“Stockton is more than going to class,” he said. “Stockton is an experience of family.”
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