Sunny skies and a pleasant temperature near 70 degrees greeted the 2,546 January and June graduates of the College of Staten Island, their families, friends, and supporters, as well as members of the College community on June 2 at the College’s 67th Commencement ceremony on the Great Lawn.
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After opening remarks from CSI Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Gary Reichard, CSI President Dr. William J. Fritz came to the lectern. In his remarks, Dr. Fritz focused on the legacy of place of the College’s Willowbrook campus and launched the College’s 60th Anniversary celebration. He outlined the progression of the campus from farmland to the site of Halloran General Hospital, a state-of-the-art medical facility that provided treatment to more than 162,000 wounded soldiers during World War 2.
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Dr. Fritz then discussed the conversion of Halloran into the infamous Willowbrook State School after the war’s conclusion. As Halloran was a model medical facility, Willowbrook was a model of a tragically broken system for treating people with developmental disabilities, serving as an overcrowded warehouse for neglected patients. Eventually, the public was made aware of the horrors of the facility when Senator Robert Kennedy referred to it as a “snake pit” and Geraldo Rivera’s reports for ABC News shed light on the conditions there.
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Willowbrook became a civil rights battleground, according to the President, leading to the signature of the Willowbrook Consent Decree by then Governor Hugh Carey in 1975. The Decree established that Willowbrook’s residents had a constitutional right to be protected from harm and to live their lives as citizens within the community. Willowbrook eventually closed in 1987.
Dr. Fritz pointed to the progressive aspects of this portion of the College’s legacy. “What you may not know is that Willowbrook’s legacy, like Halloran General Hospital before it, is in many ways a story of remarkable triumph. Shortly after he signed the Consent Decree, Governor Carey extended similar benefits to all persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities served by the State system, leading to the closure of other State schools and increased placements in residential community homes. The heightened awareness brought about by Willowbrook State School is credited with sparking the adoption of the first federal civil rights legislation protecting people with disabilities which became the building blocks of laws eventually leading to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990.”
Eventually, in 1993, Willowbrook became the home of the College of Staten Island, continuing its legacy of accessible quality higher education, building on the past successes of predecessor institutions Staten Island Community College and Richmond College, which merged in 1976 to form CSI.
One of the College’s current success stories is 2016 Valedictorian RinZhi Go Larocque. The daughter of a fisherman in Malaysia who had trying encounters with pirates as he worked, she came to the U.S. to face language barriers, immigration problems, and eventual homelessness. Comparing her past life to being adrift in a leaking boat, RinZhi explained, “For me, my rescue boat turned out to be the CSI-CUNY Language Immersion Program.”
Now an academic success, as well as a Verrazano School student, a dedicated volunteer who helps others in need, and soon to be a graduate student at SUNY, Buffalo, studying dentistry, RinZhi imparted her example and encouragement to the other graduates. “Despite my circumstances, I held my head high and kept sailing, laboring mightily to repair my leaking boat by assimilating into a new society. Just as the pirates did not deter my dad from fishing in the ocean, nothing should discourage us from pursuing our dreams and giving our all to humanity’s underserved, globally as well as locally. There will always be storms ahead of you in the ocean. Do not lose hope! Find something you believe in because all of the challenges that you will face are in fact lessons that will go on to form your legacy, based on the beautiful life that you will have after reaching the shore.”
During the ceremony, the College bestowed two honorary degrees: Dr. Khalid Iqbal, Professor and Chairman, Department of Neurochemistry at the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities, received a Doctor of Science degree, and Shakespearean actor John Douglas Thompson received the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.
Also in attendance to celebrate the Class of 2016 were U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, CUNY Trustee Dr. Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, and Brian Cohen, CUNY Vice Chancellor and University Chief Information Officer.
Near the conclusion of this year’s Commencement, Dr. Fritz recognized 88-year-old William Carey, a World War 2 veteran who was graduating with a History degree in American Studies.
In the afternoon, the tradition of honoring exceptional CSI faculty, staff, and students continued with the Annual Dolphin Awards ceremony.
Visit the CSI Today Dolphin Awards Photo Gallery in order to read the individual biographies of the outstanding honorees for 2016.
This year’s honorees included:
-Outstanding Scholarly Achievement by a Member of the Full-Time Faculty: Daniel McCloskey
-Outstanding Teaching by a Member of the Full-Time Faculty: Patricia Brooks
-Outstanding Service and Contribution to the College by a Member of the Full-Time Faculty: Jane Marcus-Delgado
-Outstanding Teaching by a Member of the Adjunct Faculty: Susan Rocco
-Outstanding Service and Contribution to the College by a Member of the Non-Teaching Instructional Staff in HEO Title: Kathy Galvez
-Outstanding Service and Contribution to the College by a Member of the Non-Instructional Staff in CLT and OIT Specialists Title: Linda John
-Outstanding Service and Contribution to the College by a Member of the Non-Instructional Staff: Erma Tacopino
-Outstanding Service and Contribution to the College by a Member of the Non-Instructional Staff in Maintenance, Operations, Security: Barbara Brancaccio
-Outstanding Service and Contribution to the College by a Member of the Part-Time, Non-Teaching Staff: Jeremiah Jurkiewicz
-Outstanding Service and Contribution to the College by a Currently Enrolled Student: Rana (RJ) Mohammad
President Fritz opened the ceremony by thanking the many people who made this Commencement day possible. College Writer/Editor Terry Mares followed Dr. Fritz, reading short biographies of each of the honorees, celebrating their contributions to the College.