Members of the largest class in Rutgers University history were awarded their degrees today in a sun-soaked commencement ceremony in Piscataway that included an emotional farewell to the school’s outgoing president.
Rutgers President Richard McCormick officially conferred degrees to 13,465 graduates from the state university’s New Brunswick-Piscataway, Newark and Camden campuses. The class is the largest in Rutgers’ 246-year history, easily beating last year’s graduating class by more than 500 students.
The ceremony at HighPoint Solutions Stadium in Piscataway was one of the last official duties for McCormick, who is stepping down next month to return to teaching at Rutgers after nearly a decade as president. University officials surprised McCormick with an honorary doctor of laws degree during the ceremony.
“You love Rutgers and you have made it a stronger university,” said Gerald Harvey, vice chairman of Rutgers’ board of governors.
A visually choked-up McCormick brought his hands to his mouth and wiped his eyes as he was awarded the degree. Pursing his lips and fighting back tears, McCormick looked out on the graduates as they gave him a standing ovation. “At last, a Rutgers degree,” said McCormick, who grew up the son of a Rutgers professor and taught at Rutgers, but never attended the school.
“I have never felt so honored and I thank every one of you from the bottom of my heart,” McCormick said.
About 30,000 friends and family members watched the ceremony from the stadium stands, according to university estimates. But only a fraction of this year’s Rutgers graduates attended the commencement, filling about two-thirds of the 7,500 white chairs set up on the university’s football field. Most Rutgers students will attend smaller graduation ceremonies with their schools and colleges this week, where they will pick up their degrees.
Rutgers officials said the class of 2012 is among the most racially diverse in the university’s history. About a third of the students are the first in their family to graduate from college and half are from immigrant families, campus officials said.
A Rutgers alumnus, Motorola Solutions CEO Greg Brown, delivered the commencement address. Brown, who recently led the university’s search for a new president, filled in for the scheduled speaker, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz. Diaz bowed out of the speech several weeks ago due to back surgery.
The Jersey-born Brown told the story of his rise from an undergraduate at Rutgers’ Livingston College to CEO of a major company. Brown also acknowledged the ongoing debate over the controversial plan backed by Gov. Chris Christie that would give the Rutgers-Camden campus to Rowan University. Brown said the idea should be debated without personal attacks.
“Let the best ideas prevail unaffected by animosity or ego,” Brown said.
Brown was awarded an honorary doctoral degree at the ceremony. Other honorary degrees went to opera singer Martina Arroyo and Rutgers alumna Shireen Lewis, founder of the nonprofit program SisterMentors.
Many of the graduates tossed their caps in the air at the end of the ceremony. Ashley McCrossin, 23, held on to her cap, which she spent hours decorating with glued-on crystals so her family could spot her from the stands. The psychology major said she had mixed emotions about leaving Rutgers. “It’s bittersweet, but I’m excited,” said McCrossin, of Rumson, who plans to apply to nursing school.
Elorm Avakame, 21, stood on his chair and lifted his arms to the sky at the end of the ceremony. “I feel on top of the world right now,” said Avakame, of Pennsylvania, who plans to apply to medical school next year.
Rutgers graduation ceremonies continue throughout the week. Rutgers-Newark will host several ceremonies Monday at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark and Rutgers-Camden will hold its ceremonies Thursday at Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden.
The threat of rainy weather has already affected one of Rutgers’ largest graduations. Monday’s School of Environmental and Biological Sciences ceremony, where more than 600 students will receive degrees, will be moved from an outdoor site near Passion Puddle in New Brunswick to the Louis Brown Athletic Center in Piscataway, campus officials said.