graduates sitting in an arena facing a stage with a large green backdrop that says Russell Sage College
The 107th Russell Sage College commencement ceremony on May 11, 2024, in MVP Arena celebrated the accomplishments of 630 graduates. (Photo by Matt Milless)

Nallely Martinez was finally having the commencement ceremony she lost out on as a high school senior in 2020. And it felt good.

Waiting in the line-up at MVP Arena on Saturday night for Russell Sage College’s 107th commencement with her friend Fatima Reyes, who was also graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice, Law & Behavioral Science, she described the emotions of her first major graduation ceremony.

“It was hard being a pandemic graduate. I’m actually having an actual real-life graduation now, about to cross the stage, probably about to cry, but I don’t want to cry. It’s just a lot of mixed emotions,” she said.

“A lot of things that just all hit at once. I feel like not having our life the way we wanted it to be and just getting it back and being able to cross the stage, it’s just so memorable, and we’re just happy to be here,” Martinez added, listing the people who were particularly important to her at Russell Sage, including Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice, Law & Behavioral Science Jeffrey Golden and her faculty advisor, Marissa Beeble, an associate professor of psychology.

Martinez and Reyes were among the 630 bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate, and advanced certificate earners celebrated at the ceremony.

For some students receiving their bachelor’s degrees, this was their first opportunity for a true graduation celebration, as many of them were high school seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Russell Sage Board of Trustee Chair Caroline Leavitt DeCota ’84 welcomed students to the Russell Sage College Alumnae/i Association and commended everyone for their resilience and adaptability.

“You’ll continue transforming and growing throughout your life, but I believe some things from your time at Russell Sage will remain constant – whether it’s a concrete lesson from a class that you apply regularly in your work; words from a mentor that continue to motivate you through challenges; or ongoing relationships with people you met on campus, who have become lifelong friends.”

Caitlyn Lopeck, a Doctor of Physical Therapy graduate, welcomed students as the ceremony’s student speaker – a role she joked was a surprise to her friends and family, who didn’t know she was selected for the honor.

“Everyone here, regardless of circumstances, has made it to this point – no small feat. You are coming one step closer to where you want to be in life,” she said. “Plenty of memories were made here at Russell Sage, and plenty more are going to be made after this ceremony.”

The college awarded two honorary doctorates during the ceremony, one to Russell Sage College President Christopher Ames, who will retire at the end of June after leading the college for seven years.

Via the arena scoreboard, Ames shared a black and white photo of himself as a child on the first day of school and asked graduates to reflect on their own educational origin stories.

“What has kept me here? Most obviously a love for learning and an enthusiasm for all the great range of human experience and scientific exploration of the world, an increasing understanding of all I do not know and its importance. I’ve also been nourished by good teachers all my life, whether that was an encouraging professor in college or the examples of the dedicated faculty I’ve worked with over the last 40 years. Learning is invigorating and always new, and I feel lucky to have spent so long in school,” Ames said. 

“There is nothing unusual about my story. It is an American story about opportunity grounded in parental sacrifice and schooling; it is a story about how the first generation to have a college education ensures that subsequent generations have that experience, too. All of you gathered in this arena have versions of that story in your heritages.”

Building on the theme of those who helped graduates make it to this day, the second honorary doctorate recipient, commencement speaker, and internationally celebrated composer Tania León shared her journey to America from Cuba and to a celebrated career. León is the winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music and a Kennedy Center honoree.

“Once upon a time, there was a 4-year-old girl with braids, whose grandmother believed so much in her talents that she took her to the local conservatory and convinced the teachers to begin music education. What we lacked in material wealth, we made up in spirit, encouragement, and support,” she said.

She spoke of coming to New York City knowing three English words: Yes, no, and Maria.

“I understand that Maria is not an English word, but to me it was. I recognized those buildings, the fire escapes, from the movie ‘West Side Story.’” She said she later had the pleasure of telling that story to noted composer Leonard Bernstein, who wrote the score for the musical.

“My journey to where I am standing before you has been blessed by the spirit of encouragement and support, not only of my family, but of teachers, mentors, colleagues, friends, and audiences,” León said. “Remember the lessons you have learned here. I urge you to be fearless in pursuing your dreams, fearless in the face of adversity, and as you lead social change, remember that your voice matters, and your actions have the power to shape the future.”

Martinez and Reyes say they both plan on pursuing careers in law enforcement, with Martinez taking a year to work and save up money for a potential return to graduate school. She has dreams of becoming a federal agent specializing in sex crimes and trafficking, as she feels passionate about the issue of women’s safety. 

She says maybe she and Reyes, who plans to join the police force before pursuing a position in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, will one day be reunited as professionals in federal law enforcement. 

But they won’t forget the bonds they’ve formed at Russell Sage anytime soon.

“We’re big Dominican in here, and that’s just that, and we’re graduating,” Martinez said.

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