Coming Together

May 31, 2024
Commencement 2024

Buffalo, NY - There are moments that just stand out. On Saturday, May 18, the Canisius University Class of 2024 gathered for two commencement ceremonies honoring the College of Arts and Sciences in the morning, and the School of Education and Human Services and the Wehle School of Business in the afternoon.

Every class is special in its own way, but this one stands out. For one, they are the first to graduate from Canisius University since the institution’s promotion in August 2023. But it is the circumstances in which these students arrived at this moment that make them extraordinary.

Commencement canceled
For the Class of 2024, their academic career was shaped by a very different moment. For almost all the undergraduate students, March 2020 inaugurated their final semester of high school. Many looked forward to prom, graduation and the other traditions associated with senior spring.

Then, on March 11, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Schools, businesses and organizations nationwide and around the world transitioned to remote learning, working and living. The world changed almost overnight – for a couple weeks, tops. Then a couple months. Then more.

The pandemic was something that everyone went through together, each in their own way. For many in the Class of 2024, they lost the opportunity to close the chapter on one of the most significant periods of their lives in the way they deserved.

“I remember watching the news every day from home wondering, am I ever going to go back to school?” says Jahare Hudson, a member of the Class of 2024 and two-term president of the Undergraduate Student Association. “They said that this was only going to be temporary, that we will be able to have our graduation... Four years of hard work – and then it never came.”

Hudson characterizes the experience of many of his fellow students when they received the news: “It sucked.”

Hudson’s high school, like others, tried to make do, hosting a “drive-by” graduation where families gathered in the parking lot (but had to stay in their cars), then another where students were allowed to separately approach a table to receive their diploma. Hudson describes being handed a bag containing the certificates and awards he had earned – mixed in with the contents of his locker.

Students who came from different schools felt the same anticlimax. Hawa Saleh, an honors student, says, “I never felt like I graduated high school. I never got that opportunity to say bye. … Everything that I had been looking forward to got stripped away from me.”

Preparation and anticipation
In the hour before Canisius’ commencement ceremonies, the graduates’ parents, friends and other guests presented their tickets at the door, then found their seats under the sweeping blue-and-gold banners draped from the ceiling beams. Their scuffling feet, recrossing legs and thumbing through the program again and again betrayed their nervousness, as if this whole thing might yet again be called off at the last minute.

Backstage, the graduates were more relaxed. Standing before a series of full-length mirrors propped along the walls, they helped each other into their gowns, donning hoods, tassels and medals that they had earned. Some took selfies with Petey, the school's golden griffin mascot, or the large marquee arranged in the corner, “CANISIUS 2024” spelled out in lights. They had made it this far.

Many observed the tradition of decorating mortarboards. The messages ranged from the political (the war in Gaza) to the farcical (“Psyched to be done with this BS,” “What, like it’s hard?”); from the hopeful (“Future DVM all for them,” accompanied by pictures of beloved pets) to the grateful (“Thank you to the angels smiling above,” “I’m standing here because you helped me find my way”). A few of the School of Education grads highlighted their formal professional titles: “Miss Fiorella,” complete with a heart filled with the signatures of her elementary students.

When the call came to prepare to process, they strode forward as one.

Starting over
How a student enters college is pivotal. According to U.S. News & World Report, most students who drop out of college do so their first year. Many in the Class of 2024 entered with a dissatisfying conclusion to high school, with fear and confusion around health and safety protocols, against the backdrop of that first pandemic winter.

Saleh, who is Yemeni-American and a first-generation college student, had already worried about being an outsider. When she arrived on campus, Saleh viscerally remembers one of her first classes, a history course that was one of few to take place in person. Social distancing requirements placed students individually at long tables intended for two partners. “I would always look to my left or my right and think, this should be a person,” she says, feeling as if there was “a huge gulf” between her and her classmates.

Though masking policies were deemed necessary to protect safety, they also anonymized and exacerbated the awkwardness of participating in class. Saleh, thoughtful and soft-spoken, joined the class late, and so sat toward the back, where she would “have to scream” to be heard. She wondered, if she missed class, would her absence even be noticed? “The lack of existence became our normal,” she says.

It was in that class that hope started to shine through for Saleh. The class had landed – in that digressive way that classes do – on the topic of cedar trees. Another student mentioned that there were trees from the very period that they were discussing still growing in parts of Lebanon. Saleh recalls thinking, “there’s no way a girl knows something so niche she’s not Lebanese. Maybe I can connect with her on our Arab identities. I went up to her after class, and we walked over to Tim Hortons and we talked. She’s my best friend now.”

For Mason Bowes, another honors student and one of a handful of students graduating with a perfect GPA, the pandemic would not squash the excitement of moving into his campus residence. Though his classes were online, and on-campus events were still off, Bowes says that most of his considerable free time was spent connecting with other residents. Bowes, who describes himself as an introvert, realized that the same social anxiety he felt everyone was now feeling.

“Coming to Canisius was a way to reject that isolation and fear that I felt,” he says. “I remember the first day that I moved in freshman year, I just went around knocking on peoples’ doors and introducing myself, like, ‘Hi, I’m Mason.’ It was interesting how much of a fresh start COVID was for me because I was able to become a new person in a lot of ways.”

Bowes and his floormates would pass the time studying together, then watching movies and playing games. “I don’t like throwing the word ‘family’ around because it brings a lot of connotations,” he says. “[But] when I think of other schools, I think of competition to be better than other people. I think at Canisius, students challenge each other to be the best versions of themselves.”

“No one’s ever tried to put another student down,” he adds.

In addition to the Class of 2024, Canisius also conferred honorary degrees upon Mary Wilson, life trustee of the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation and a tireless supporter of Western New York, as well as Brian Higgins, former member of Congress and current president and CEO of Buffalo’s historic Shea’s Performing Arts Center, who gave the address.

Although he did not address the class, the presence of another honoree, Damar Hamlin, spoke as loudly to their spirit. There are few who don’t know the Buffalo Bills safety’s story. At 8:55 p.m. on January 2, 2023, Hamlin experienced cardiac arrest after making a tackle during Monday Night Football. Medical staff tended to Hamlin on the field, administering defibrillation and CPR for 19 minutes, before he was transported to the hospital in critical condition.

No one could have known then where Hamlin’s story would go from there. Not only did the 24-year-old make a full recovery, announcing his return to the game in April 2023, he also became one of the highest profile advocates for heart health and youth sports safety. His CPR Tour has equipped more than 1,200 individuals with life-saving emergency medical training, provided 170 AEDs to communities in need and spurred youth sports safety legislation in 12 states.

“The only choice I had was to be strong,” he says, trading his blue-and-red Bills uniform with a black cap and gown. “One moment doesn’t define you, you know? You have to keep putting that right foot in front of the left. … No matter what goes on, no matter what hurdles come your way, just keep going.”

Rising above the adversity of a moment isn’t the only thing that Hamlin – now Dr. – shares with the Class of 2024.

“I graduated college in 2020. I listened to my graduation on a Zoom call while I was working out, so I never truly got that experience,” he says. “I always wanted to have a graduation. To be here getting an honorary doctorate is further than a dream come true. To just be here, being able to do the full cap-and-gown thing, it’s an honor.”

Spring again
Things started to change for the Class of 2024 after that pandemic winter – and not only that, but the class started to change things themselves. Hudson recalls that by the second year, when health and safety protocols started to loosen, “It was time to explore, to meet new people, to see what’s going on on campus.” This was around the time when Hudson first ran for president in a contested election.

The campaign marked a turning point for Hudson and the student body. After a long hibernation, they were hungry.

“That’s when I finally got what the Canisius spirit was,” Hudson says, describing it as “a feeling of aliveness, of fun, of grace… It’s everything we associate with being a Griff.” Students started showing up, meeting each other and sharing their ideas. “This is what Canisius has to offer when there isn’t a pandemic holding us back,” Hudson says.

In the following years, the class proved indomitable, reinvigorating the community and reshaping the institution for the better. In his two terms, Hudson took the Undergraduate Student Association, which had withered during the pandemic, and rebuilt it into the United Student Association, representing both undergraduates and the school’s growing graduate student population for the first time. He also worked to introduce programming and mentorship for the next generation of student leaders who would take over, making sure that the momentum the class had fought so hard to generate would sustain. Genevieve Fontana, who had transferred to Canisius after experiencing poor mental health as a result of isolation at her first school, launched a media series that brought awareness to individuals and departments advancing sustainability throughout the institution, working to break down the silos that had built up as a result of the pandemic. She also chaired the student sustainability committee, started an on-campus thrift store and was active in the community garden. Saleh changed majors, completed three new majors, and published and presented articles in national honors society magazines and gatherings, as well as finding time to mentor fellow students in the writing center. Glimpsing individual accomplishments gives only a sense of their incredible collective impact.

If there’s one theme that carries through this class’ accomplishments, it’s finding – their confidence, their paths, their communities, their places, their voices, themselves.

‘Plan A has been A-ing’
The resilience, compassion and strength demonstrated by the Class of 2024 were echoed in the addresses delivered by the commencement speakers: Jayseana Jackson, who spoke in the morning, and Hannah Hamilton, who spoke in the afternoon. Working in a format often criticized for its platitudes, they offered fresh insights based on lived experiences.

Hamilton, who graduated with a master’s in special education and childhood education, shared how love is the wellspring for change. A teacher herself, she keeps a list of teachers stretching back to kindergarten as a reminder of people who had shaped her at some point. She describes it as “a technique to honor people who have made positive ripples,” a theme of her speech (and something she borrowed from her “hippy parents,” she says with a smirk, alluding to the Grateful Dead song “Ripples”). “We are so capable of starting these movements, creating positive change.”

Jackson spoke to this moment in time at the intersection of a challenging past and a wide-open future.

“We are not our past or who we used to be,” she said. “We are who we’re going to be.” It’s a message that Jackson, who grew up in the foster care system on Buffalo’s historically underserved East Side, is uniquely qualified to share. Having experienced firsthand the difference that caring people can make in a young person’s life, she’s determined to use her upcoming education at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School to advocate for kids in the system.

“I’m very persistent,” she says. “When I want something, I have to get it. I only have a plan A.” Reflecting on her journey, from her experiences in the foster system to connecting with mentors to attending her first-choice college and now heading to law school, she says: “Plan A has been A-ing.”

At last
Commencement day proceeded like many others before: the robes, tassels, medals and mortarboards; the procession, pomp and circumstance; above all the swelling cheers, hugs and tears of gathered family, friends and loved ones. For the graduates, many of whom waited eight years for a celebration like this, they wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The graduates took the stairs in turn, sharing the stage with a former congressman, a professional football player or a philanthropist leading a billion-dollar foundation, university leadership, esteemed scholars, writers, educators and businesspeople. But for every step that they took from one end to the other, each moment was theirs, and it could not be taken away.

The Canisius Class of 2024 will always be linked by their experience. Hundreds of individual paths brought them here, and they go off on as many new ones. But on this spring day they all came together for a moment.