SHU awards 2,800 degrees at commencement

FAIRFIELD—Over 2,800 Sacred Heart University undergraduate and graduate students walked across the stage at the Hartford HealthCare Amphitheater in Bridgeport on Sunday, May 14, to receive their diplomas and celebrate their accomplishments.

The SHU class of 2023 includes 1,484 undergraduates who earned bachelor’s and associate degrees and 1,341 graduate students who earned master’s degrees, professional certificates and doctorate degrees. Separate ceremonies were held for each group.

Undergraduate ceremony
One undergraduate, Keegan Pepin, 20, planned to celebrate her achievements with her parents and grandparents. She was under the impression her twin sister, Katelyn Pepin, was busy with training at the United States Naval Academy. Katelyn Pepin is a junior at the Maryland-based institute and has a hectic schedule. However, when Katelyn Pepin realized her free weekend was going to fall on the same day as her sister’s graduation—whom she hadn’t seen since Christmas and wasn’t going to see again until November—she knew she had to attend.

On Sunday afternoon, after a morning of traveling, Katelyn Pepin arrived at the amphitheater with her family. Keegan Pepin was asked to go backstage to be a part of a video interview with SHU President John J. Petillo. To her shock and delight, rather than the interview, it was a reunion with her twin sister. Onlookers applauded as the sisters embraced. Her family beamed, delighted by the meeting.

“I don’t even have words right now, I did not expect her to be here whatsoever … she’s the one person I wanted here,” Keegan Pepin said through tears. The twins hugged and cried together. They rejoiced when they realized they would have a long drive back to their home in New Hampshire together to talk and catch up.

“I’m really proud of you,” Katelyn Pepin told her sister as their parents and grandparents looked on.

At 3 p.m., the undergraduate class of 2023, processed inside the amphitheater on a windy spring day. The SHU band provided the pomp as the giddy students walked eagerly to their seats, waving to friends and family nearby.

In his opening remarks to the undergraduate class, Petillo told them they made the University better just by being there.

“I too have been blessed in getting to know and watch many of you,” he said. “My hope and wish is that as you depart you continue to reflect on your journey. The years ahead will be filled with challenges and opportunities. Be bold and listen less to your fears and more to your dreams. Be not afraid of doubt. Muster the courage to stretch and believe.”

Jeff Flaks, president and CEO of Hartford Healthcare, was the keynote speaker at the undergraduate ceremony. He also received an honorary doctor of humane letters, honoris causa. Flaks is one of health care’s most progressive leaders, transforming care delivery over the course of nearly three decades.

“Graduates, SHU is a lot like you: entrepreneurial, transformative—growing and getting better all the time,” Flaks said. “SHU has been your gateway—your bridge to transformation.”

He told the graduates to “Never lose that pioneer spirit. You are members of the best-educated, the most diverse, the most technologically savvy group of graduate the world has ever seen … the class of 2023.”

Flaks, a Connecticut native, went on to tell the audience about his career starting back when he was a 17-year-old delivery driver for a local pharmacy. This early experience instilled a calling in health care and Flaks said it’s a “memory that motivates me to this very day. I couldn’t then have imagined the roles I would be privileged to serve in.”

“With your combination of education and experience, you are ready,” Flaks said toward the end of his address. “You have the benefit of time and the road ahead is long and promising. I am confident you will do amazing things.”

Ben Carson, 21, of Foxboro, Mass., was one of many graduates elated to receive his bachelor’s degree from the Jack Welch College of Business & Technology. The management and marketing major was gushing about his college career.

“Sacred Heart University has given me more than I could have imagined. SHU has presented me with an abundance of opportunities to foster personal, professional and academic growth. From the meaningful relationships I created with fellow students and faculty, to the ample opportunities for leadership, I can attest that attending Sacred Heart University has been one of the best decisions I have ever made,” Carson said. “The positive welcoming culture on campus, along with the amazing academic programs and support, are just a few things that set Sacred Heart apart from other universities. I am happy to have been a part of this community for the past four years.”

Carson hopes to pursue his MBA at Sacred Heart.

After the conferral of degrees, Olivia LaRosa, SHU’s class of 2023 president, addressed the crowd. She asked her peers to think about how they felt the day they first stepped onto campus and how it likely felt uncomfortable.

“From being dropped off for our overnight orientation with a bunch of strangers to roaming the halls trying to find classrooms on the first day … All those moments of discomfort soon became moments of comfort as we found our people, our place and our home,” LaRosa said.

LaRosa took her class through their four years at SHU and reminded them how they survived the pandemic and all its challenges. She said they were lucky their college experience returned to “normal” and students took full advantage of all the many extracurricular activities SHU offered. “We found our passions and allowed them to motivate us to keep learning and to stay curious.

“Sometimes you do not realize the value of these moments until they become memories,” LaRosa continued. “Here we are on the day of graduation with bright futures ahead of us all. A new journey awaits as more doors open to us to fuel our curiosity and heighten our motivation. Remember that you have the ability and passion to do what you love and make the change you want to see.”

LaRosa concluded her speech by leading the class of 2023 through the ceremonial turning of the tassel from the right to the left side of their caps. The amphitheater exploded in cheers and applause.

Graduate ceremony
Earlier in the day, SHU’s graduate students received their awards. In his address to the graduates, Petillo reflected on the classic Simon & Garfunkel song, “The Sound of Silence.”

“It is an introspective song that speaks to the human experience of isolation and struggles to communicate with others,” he said. “Well, as you transition now to the workforce with your degree, remember to do so with the courage of reflection.”

At the end of his speech he said, “Let the sounds of silence be those of reflective hope and not of disillusionment. Let those sounds of silence be enriching and not isolation. Let the sounds of silence enable you to find your voice boldly and with confidence.”

Before the conferral of degrees, Richard A. Robinson, chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court, delivered the keynote address to the graduate students and also received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree, honoris causa.

“After years of hard work—the fact that you were able to pull this off during a pandemic, unimaginable social unrest and a never-ending 2020 election cycle shows what a resilient, tenacious and dedicated group of people that you are,” Robinson said to the students.

Robinson said when he sat down and thought about what he would talk about in his address, he realized he was born five years before SHU’s very first commencement ceremony. “The world back then was very different from the world we live in today,” he said.

He talked about how the world allowed for civil unrest and how it was acceptable to discriminate against people based on gender and race. Such standards upset Robinson who decided to pursue a career in the legal system so he could fight injustices.

“Today, I urge you to harness that power and to set lofty goals that are bigger than you,” Robinson said. “Rely on your head and draw from your life experiences. Learn from your successes and your failures. Draw upon the tremendous education for which you have worked so hard, but also use the skills and common sense that you have mastered to get to where you are today.”

Robinson reminded students that there will be exciting times ahead, but also loss and sorrow. “After all, that’s part of the wonderful, albeit short, time we have on Earth. Be assured, though, that your head will reliably assist with the logic and critical thinking needed to make decisions when obstacles present themselves—and the heart will become a resilient and steady soldier in keeping you on the right path,” he said.

During the conferral of degrees, Petillo handed out a posthumous diploma to the family of Josh Hermsen, a graduate student who died last summer. He was studying clinical mental health counseling.

“Josh began his graduate studies at SHU in September 2020 after stepping away from his full-time job in human resources and marketing,” said Michael Alfano, vice provost of strategic partnerships and dean of the Isabelle Farrington College of Education & Human Development. “He has a remarkable story as a three-time heart transplant recipient. At the time of his passing, Josh was just a few months shy of completing his coursework in clinical mental health counseling and pursuing his dream of becoming a therapist to help children struggling with life-threatening illnesses.”

Alfano told the audience that his family is honoring his memory with the creation of a scholarship for students who also aspire to be mental health counselors. “It is with a mixture of sadness and pride for all that Josh embodied that we present this posthumous master’s degree to Josh’s family,” Alfano said.

After degrees were awarded, Carlos Ruiz ’21, who received his master’s degree in digital marketing, spoke on behalf of his graduating class.

“While I have been at SHU for the past six years, these last two years have been fundamental,” Ruiz said.

Ruiz spoke about his involvement in extra-curricular activities, his graduate assistant positions and the committees he’s served on. Ruiz explained that they all gave him to the necessary tools to succeed.

“We learn from our mistakes, our experiences and from the people around us. Hopefully, the lessons we’ve learned, especially here at SHU, have prepared us to not only be successful in our professional careers, but in our lives,” Ruiz said.

Through the good and the bad times, through the doubts and sacrifices, he said the class’s “courage and determination are what led us here and will continue to lead us in our future.

“You should be proud of this accomplishment and the ones that are about to come. No matter where life takes us next, I hope we are all successful,” Ruiz said at the end of his speech. “I hope to hear or see that some of us go off to be the next well-known sports reporter, recognized as a successful educator within your school district, or simply be the change in the lives of those who need it most within our respective fields or in our local communities. And remember no matter where you go, home is where the heart is. Thank you and congratulations; we did it!”