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Cougars Climb Higher at Kean Undergraduate Commencement 2019

Tony-nominated actor Jeff Daniels gives Commencement Address to 2,856 graduating seniors and their families.

Actor Jeff Daniels, nominated for a Tony Award for his performance in the Broadway blockbuster To Kill a Mockingbird, delivered a powerful address at the Kean University Undergraduate Commencement, exhorting the Class of 2019 to help repair a divided nation.

“Our country is not in a good place. We are divided. We’re angry,” he said. “You can help change that. You can make a difference by bringing back civility, decency, compassion, empathy, class, honesty, respect for others and truth.”

The commencement ceremony, held at Prudential Center in Newark, included the first class of architecture graduates from Kean’s Michael Graves College among the 2,856 students receiving bachelor’s degrees in a variety of academic disciplines.

Daniels, a two-time Emmy Award winner perhaps best known for his roles in HBO’s The Newsroom as well as the movie comedy Dumb and Dumber, asked the graduates if they are ready to compete for their place in the world.

“You have to want it,” he said. “If I could give you one piece of advice that has served me well, it is to find out what it is that you want to do and spend the rest of your life getting better at it. Take pride in what you do. Become the person you dream of being, the one who, with a little luck, can make a difference in the world.”

The graduates, nearly two-thirds of them women, range in age from 20 to 72 years old. They hail from New Jersey and 11 other states and 38 countries, including Dominican Republic, Kenya, Norway, Pakistan, China and Canada. Their degrees are in architecture, business, computer science, design, education, health care, liberal arts, science, and the visual and performing arts.

The top three academic programs for the Class of 2019 are psychology, with 444 graduating students; biology with 267 graduating students; and management, with 217 graduating students.

Keithland Levy from Elmwood Park, a first-generation college graduate, is one of the first alumni from Kean’s architectural studies program.

“It’s been a long road with late nights in the studio,” he said. “We have endured it, and we have all accomplished something to become our best selves and learn what we are capable of. I learned a lot about myself. Congratulations, Class of 2019.”

Calling the graduates “the very best that Kean has to offer,” President Dawood Farahi, Ph.D., told the graduates that common threads are woven through their stories — many are first in their families to earn a four-year degree; many are immigrants or children of immigrants; and the majority worked their way through school.

“Higher education is the greatest equalizer in America, and nobody can take it away from you,” Farahi said. “Take a risk. Try something different, and you will get to the job you love.”

Valedictorian Tiziana Cappuccia of Elizabeth said she took a risk when she decided against getting a degree in engineering and chose music education instead.

“We have one chance in life to follow our passions, and we should follow through with those desires,” she said. “After today, the world will continue to watch as we pursue our passions and our dreams. Our new adventure begins today.”

A self-described “introvert” who gets “nervous speaking in front of crowds,” Senior Class President Khamayah McClain of North Plainfield, who is receiving a bachelor’s degree in public administration, looked to some of her favorite books to inspire her classmates.

Citing A Raisin in the Sun; Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds; and Grit, she encouraged the graduates to slow down and be present in each moment, celebrate life’s lessons, and bring quality to their work.

“Our world is transforming rapidly and the only way that we can better the world and the people in it, is to do the work needed on ourselves first,” she said.

President of Student Organization Francisco Reyes of Atlantic City is receiving a bachelor’s degree in communication. He quoted Shakespeare and Jay-Z to urge the graduates to envision what they can become.

“Since we were young, we’ve always heard how our generation is the future. Well, that future is right now, and it’s our turn to spread that light, that greatness within us. We’re all great in some unique way,” he said.  

An enthusiastic crowd of more than 19,000 was on hand to cheer on the graduating students.

Jessica Scott from Newark, who is receiving her bachelor’s degree in psychology and plans to pursue a master’s degree, said her emotions were “all over the place.”

“I’m excited. I’m happy. I’m glad it’s over, and I am going to miss it,” she said. “It was amazing. The school was phenomenal. I loved the small classes, and I made a lot of friendships.”

This was Kean University’s second commencement ceremony in a week. The Nathan Weiss Graduate College Commencement was held Friday, May 17 at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark. Comedian and CBS News Sunday Morning contributor Nancy Giles gave the commencement address before 726 graduates — nearly 80 percent of them women — who are receiving doctoral and master’s degrees and professional diplomas. Read more.

Wenzhou-Kean University, Kean’s campus in Wenzhou, China, will hold its fourth commencement ceremony on Sunday, June 2.