Web Exclusives: PawPlus

September 27, 2006:

Hunter President Jennifer Raab’s June 2006 commencement address

Thomas Hunter, an Irish immigrant, created Hunter College 136 years ago to train young women to become teachers.  He believed in his obligation to the future.           

Hunter remains true to that tradition.  You sit here today, poised to celebrate your graduation, because our society cared deeply about your future, and ensured that you had the opportunity to earn a college degree and expand your intellectual horizons.

Hunter has prepared you for the future.   We have given you the tools to realize the extraordinary in yourselves. 

There are hundreds of extraordinary stories dressed in caps and gowns today.  Let me tell you about four of them and how they will care for the future.

Richard Stiles is extraordinary.  Richard began his career as a senior airman in the Air Force and then found success in corporate America.   But he hungered for something more fulfillng, especially after the tragedy of 9-11.  Then his father died of lung cancer.  Despite his grief, he was touched by the expert and tender care his father received from the nurses as he was dying.  One of those nurses was Richard’s mom. 

Inspired by his mom, Richard left his Wall Street job, gave up his generous salary, and moved out of his expensive apartment to follow in his mother’s footsteps.  He enrolled in hunter to become a nurse.  Today, at the age of 39, Richard graduates with honors and has won the nursing school’s leadership award.  Richard will care for the future by working in the critical care and oncology wards. 

He will also change the future by showing that men make compassionate nurses. 

Fani Reyes is extraordinary. Born in the Dominican Republic, Fani was diagnosed with dystonia, a disease which attacks the central nervous system. Doctors said she would never be able to walk, talk, or go to school. She became estranged from her father because of her illness.

But Fani’s mother refused to give up. She spent long hours massaging Fani’s limbs and face to encourage movement and speech. By the age of 5, Fani began to show remarkable progress ­ walking with assistance and learning to talk.

Seeking a better life for her family, Fani’s mother moved her children to New York City when Fani was 12. Now, not only did Fani have to cope with her disability, she also had to learn a new language.

But Fani persevered. “When I have a paper due or some other project, Fani says, “I don’t think ‘I have dystonia.’ I think ‘I have to do it.’ ”

Today, Fani graduates as a seek honors student with a 3.7 GPA and a double major in English and political science. She’s the youngest of four children, but the first in her family to graduate from college.  An active mentor, math tutor, and member of her church youth group, Fani always finds time to help others, as others have helped her.

Last year, Fani visited the doctors in the Dominican Republic who said that there was no hope for her. Seeing this bright, successful college student was a miracle. The doctors were never so happy to have been so wrong.

Fani will care for the future by teaching high school students.

Patrick Rivers is extraordinary. Both his parents grew up in the projects in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Neither attended college.  His father worked for the housing authority, his mother as a home health aid.  They had bigger hopes for their children.  But then Patrick’s younger brother Deon was diagnosed with spina bifida. The doctors predicted he would not live to his teens. The family’s hopes turned to Patrick. Patrick’s first goal was to excel at basketball.  That dream was dashed when he was sidelined by a serious injury. He turned his attention to his second love ­ music ­ which he chose as a way to communicate because of a serious stuttering problem.

Inspired by his brother’s positive attitude in the face of adversity, Patrick worked hard and was accepted into the CUNY honors college at hunter.  He became an accomplished jazz bass player and won a prestigious Mellon-Mays fellowship. 

Patrick graduates today with a 3.7 GPA and will begin his doctoral studies in ethnomusicology in the fall.  Having conquered his stuttering problem, Patrick lectures at CUNY schools on his favorite topic ­ hip-hop.  

Patrick will go on to care for the future by teaching others to appreciate all forms of music.  And despite the dire predictions, his brother Deon is now 20 and continues to inspire Patrick to excel. 

Sarah Smith is extraordinary.  Sarah traveled a long way to earn her hunter degree. She is a member of the Maori tribe in New Zealand. Eight years ago on her first visit to New York, Sarah met a 1952 Hunter graduate who was working to bring Maori dancers to the United States from New Zealand. 

The Hunter graduate and her sisters ­ who were also Hunter alums ­ invited Sarah to stay with them in New York.

Then they urged Sarah to live in New York and start college at their alma mater. But Sarah was nervous.  No one in her family had graduated from college.  In fact, few Maori women attend college, and almost none leave New Zealand to study.  But with the support of the 1950 Hunter alums, Sarah enrolled at Hunter ­ where she has thrived. 

But her ties to her country and to her tribe remain strong.  While in school, Sarah worked full-time at the New Zealand consulate and has represented New Zealand on the national karate team. 

Today, Sarah graduates with honors and a double major in political science and women’s studies.  Sarah will get an Mba and will care for the future by working to improve the economic status of women around the world.

The beautiful ceremonial cloak Sarah wears today reflects her tribal pride.  It was made for her in New Zealand, to honor her academic achievements and her Maori heritage.  The cloak, made of abalone shells and the feathers of three different kinds of birds, took five months to weave.

Sarah’s parents brought the cloak with them all the way from New Zealand. But the cloak almost didn’t make it out of the JFK airport because of its rare feathers.  Thanks to Inspector Stanford of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and a little prodding by our friend Sen. Schumer, Sarah received a special dispensation to bring the cloak into the U.S.  Sarah is allowed to keep it here for two days and then must send it back to New Zealand. 

Like your classmates, each of you has an extraordinary story. Each of you has lived the Hunter dream. Many of you came to this country not knowing the language or the customs. Most of you struggled through financial difficulties and family and work obligations to finish college. 

And now, as you leave, we ask you to honor what Hunter has given to you by giving back to your community. END