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University hosts 2021 winter commencement exercises

mbruun | Tue Dec 21, 2021

Fitchburg State University held the winter ceremony of its 125th commencement exercises on Friday, Dec. 17, conferring more than 400 degrees at the first in-person ceremony since the start of the pandemic.

President Richard S. Lapidus delivered the keynote address during the ceremony, in which he highlighted students whose journeys were emblematic of Fitchburg State and its values. These included:

  • Ruthny C. Bonnet of Boston, who completed a Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice. Bonnet emigrated with her family from Haiti when she was a young child, and as a teenager saw a neighbor murdered in gang violence. She has dedicated her life to community service, including as a member of the student emergency medical service and a mentor to other first-generation college students, and dreams of working for the FBI.
  • Dana Shahar Meyer of Chelmsford, who completed a Master of Education degree in elementary education, grades 1-6. Meyer, born in Singapore to Israeli parents, became an American citizen in 2020 and has learned Spanish and American Sign Language to better communicate with her students and encourages them to celebrate their own diverse identities.
  • Susan M. McClurken of Leominster, who completed a Bachelor of Science degree in human services. McClurken’s path to a college degree was interrupted by professional opportunities and the births of her own children, but she never lost her desire to complete her studies. With her eldest daughter about to graduate high school, McClurken resumed her studies in earnest, and finished her degree 25 years after beginning it.

Yvonne C. Gittelson of Goshen received the Graduate Student Leadership Award. Gittelson, who received her Master of Education in educational leadership and management, is a corrections education program specialist, working with education program directors who coordinate academic and vocational programs for incarcerated men and women in Massachusetts jails and prisons.

In her address to the graduates, Gittelson described the power of education she has observed with her students in correctional settings. “I used to work with AP students in high-powered academic high schools, and of course it’s rewarding to do that kind of work,” she said. “People ask me now: why do you work with felons? It’s because I have watched grown men in their 40s convicted of violent offenses burst into tears when they achieve a High School Equivalency, or an industry-recognized credential. After he composed himself, one student said to me, ‘I’m a 44-year-old ex-gang member in jail for the third time, and I finally have something I’m proud to show my children.’ That is the power of education.”

Rebecca Valcanas of Dunstable was recognized as the undergraduate valedictorian. Valcanas completed her degree in special education, serving students with severe disabilities at all grade levels.

Valcanas described completing her studies despite the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I know everyone in this room was seriously affected by the pandemic, some more than others, but what I personally experienced was a feeling of the most uncertainty of my life,” she said. “In March 2020, when we switched to remote halfway through, I, and I’m sure many others, seriously thought about cutting my losses and withdrawing from the semester.”

She credited faculty members and classmates for encouraging her to continue despite the hardships, along with support from her family.

“Despite the many obstacles we faced, somehow we all made it here today, so I want to say congratulations again to the fall class of 2021,” Valcanas said. “We couldn’t have done it without each other!”

Fitchburg State conferred degrees to students from 19 states and 10 countries at the ceremony.