Ryan Mienert, Lisa Marie Loesch, and Christopher Siani at the Melissa Riggio Graduation Ceremony

Melissa Riggio once penned that, “Love is everything, Love is all around, Love is not hopeless, Love is a passion, Love is an ocean.” Riggio’s poem, “Love is a potion,” was aptly quoted by College of Staten Island (CSI) President William J. Fritz at the AHRC New York City and CSI Continuing Education Melissa Riggio Higher Education Program Graduation Ceremony on the CSI campus.

Certainly Riggio’s sentiments seemed to have carried on as three beaming students received certificates of completion at what became a standing-room-only event at CSI’s Lorraine and Gordon Di Paolo Boardroom.

Lisa Marie Loesch, Ryan Mienert, and Christopher Siani celebrated their accomplishments with family, friends, and CSI officials as part of the graduating class of 2017, the first group of students to complete the new four-year course of study, which includes a number of additional learning activities and more closely reflects the baccalaureate experience.

“We are here tonight to celebrate you Lisa, Ryan, and Chris. You worked hard,” said Executive Director of Continuing Education and Professional Development Chris Cruz Cullari, who detailed the unique qualities of each student.

“Lisa Marie has amazing presentation and communication skills. She truly owns the room, said Cruz Cullari, adding that he is confident that Loesch will find her niche in a leadership role.

“Ryan has a tremendous work ethic. Over the years, he has helped my office at a number of events here at the College and out in the community… and finally, Chris’ enthusiasm about what he is learning and about his career goals is a very relevant model for what engaged and forward looking college students should be in 2017,” noted Cruz Cullari.

“We have been talking a lot at the College about our legacy… We are also mindful that that our history includes our important role as the place where the rights, needs, and lives of people with disabilities were brought to the forefront of local, regional, and national discussion. This year, I am focusing on our legacy of mission and our 61-year history of providing access to the highest-quality education,” Dr. Fritz said.

Chris Cruz Cullari, Ife Okoh, Program graduates, Kenichi Iwama, and Dr. Fritz gather at the Ceremony.

The CSI President also noted that, “Many people view our place, our Willowbrook campus, as the beginning of the movement for the civil rights of people with developmental disabilities,” and outlined some of the “wonderful collaborations between the College and the Melissa Riggio Higher Education Program,” including a recent lecture presented by The Geraldo Rivera Fund for Social Work and Disability Studies, as well as The Willowbrook Memorial Lecture: “The Willowbrook Mile Experience.”

Vice President for Economic Development, Continuing Studies, and Government Relations Kenichi Iwama recalled the first Program’s graduation in 2013, a smaller event, which has grown over the four years since its inception. Iwama noted that this was the first graduation ceremony to take place in the Lorraine and Gordon Di Paolo Boardroom since its renaming this year, an occasion that “signifies the level of importance and value this Program brings to CSI.”

“The College celebrates its 60-year mission of changing lives, and the Melissa Riggio Program has certainly helped in that mission. The success of this Program and the students we celebrate this evening are incredibly meaningful and inspirational, and I am proud to be a small part of the Program’s success,” said Iwama, who thanked all faculty, staff, students, and family members for their efforts.

The Riggio Program also features a senior project wherein students are engaged in research about a local social challenge, work to positively affect the challenge through community service, and ultimately share their research and experience with the campus and the community, according to Cruz Cullari.

Program Director Ife Okoh acted as master of ceremonies and called the evening, “a monumental milestone in the lives of these graduates.”

Cruz Cullari also pointed out that the students in the Riggio Program are “not the only ones who are learning and growing.  The College is learning and growing,” as he detailed some of the ways in which the Melissa Riggio students, the Program, and Program staff are giving back to the campus. These include teaching all CSI students, as well as its faculty and staff, what a diverse and fully inclusive environment can look like, providing valuable jobs and internships to CSI students as mentors, and contributing to disability and Universal Design initiatives and other projects on campus.

“We are not only celebrating the graduates this evening. We are thanking the graduates and the Program more broadly for all that both have done,” Cruz Cullari pointed out.

The Melissa Riggio Higher Education Program at CSI is a fully inclusive college-based program designed to prepare people with intellectual disabilities for adult life through higher-education coursework, career exploration and preparation, self-awareness and personal improvement, community preparation, and socialization. Newly designed as a four-year certificate program, it provides individualized academic, vocational, community, and social experiences for young adults in a highly supportive, yet challenging, environment.