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Op-Ed | Of caps, gowns and the comeback of our city

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Something special is happening this month and next all over New York City. From the Great Lawn on the campus of City College in Harlem to the amphitheater on the Coney Island boardwalk, CUNY’s 25 colleges and schools are returning to in-person commencements after two years of ceremonies that were either virtual or significantly curtailed because of the pandemic. 

It’s a return to tradition that couldn’t be more welcome. Not only because our more than 55,000 graduates — nearly half of whom are the first in their family to earn a degree — deserve all the pomp and circumstance of this defining moment in their lives. Or that their proud families will be able to share in celebrations that weren’t possible the past two years. It’s also because the ceremonies mark a moment of triumph for CUNY and our city — a symbol of our collective perseverance after all we’ve endured over these two years.

To be sure, we’re returning to in-person commencements even as we continue to battle COVID and adapt to new realities. For many of us, it is also hard to ignore the absence of the many members of the CUNY community we lost to the virus. Last week, we held a poignant counterpoint to commencement season, a CUNY Day of Remembrance to honor the more than 70 faculty, staff and students — along with untold numbers of alumni and retirees — who have died during the pandemic. 

But commencements are about achievement and promise, and this year, for CUNY, there is also the pride of coming through the depths of the pandemic as a connected community with a shared and deeply rooted mission. That makes this spring’s commencements especially meaningful because this year we are celebrating CUNY’s 175th anniversary. It’s a history that started 13 years before the Civil War, with 143 students in a school called the Free Academy that was created to provide education and opportunity to New Yorkers of all backgrounds. Many were the children of immigrants, a tradition that continues to this day. 

Next in a Long Line

So this spring, as I congratulate the CUNY Class of 2022 at commencements around the city, one of the things I’m impressing on the students is that they are all part of an important and ongoing New York story. While they are graduating from their particular college, they are also part of something bigger. Like the generations of CUNY graduates who have earned degrees before them — 1.7 million degrees in the past 50 years alone — they can now proudly say their alma mater is a great public university that propels this city as much as its subways do.

CUNY graduates, past and present, receive a quality, affordable education that positions them to start fulfilling careers without the kind of crushing debt that burdens so many graduates across the country. It’s no mystery why economists have found that CUNY is the country’s most powerful driver of upward mobility. And with more than 80 percent of our graduates staying in New York, the Class of ’22 is primed to build on our proud history of strengthening and diversifying the city’s workforce.

I addressed graduates on Zoom the past two years; last spring, I attended informal “grad walks” organized on two campuses by students who would not be denied the opportunity to march in their regalia. This year, all our colleges are back to the real thing. Ceremonies will be held at storied city venues including the United Palace and Apollo Theater, Bryant Park, Arthur Ashe Stadium, the Barclays Center and Coney Island Boardwalk. Speakers will include Dr. Anthony Fauci; astronaut Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic woman in space; and basketball icon Earl (The Pearl) Monroe. 

CUNY commencement season has long been my favorite time of the year because it is a celebration of what I love about CUNY students: Their grit and resilience. The way they overcome obstacles and make sacrifices to succeed. And how all of that underlies the thing that excites me most – their great promise. To carry the legacy forward, this year’s class had to meet all the challenges their predecessors did, and one more big one. They have earned their achievement as much as any class going back to the Free Academy. 

Matos Rodríguez is the chancellor of The City University of New York (CUNY), the largest urban public university system in the United States.

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