When college photographer Mike Peters gazes at the sea of faces at the Montclair State University ceremonies he covers, the ones that stand out are the ones that seem to tell the story and express the emotion. “I don’t really know what people think, but their faces spark my imagination and hopefully the imagination of others,” he says.
In the days following debut at MetLife Stadium and in on-campus convocations through June 6, graduates featured in the photo galleries shared their stories of joy, pride and gratitude for those who inspired them or helped get them where they are today. Many are the first members of their family to graduate from college.
Four graduates who inspired Peters to focus his camera share what they were thinking at the time.
Angely Francisco: Flashback of Memories
“Honestly, it was surreal,” says Angely Francisco, a first-generation graduate who was queuing for the College of Education and Human Services before entering the stadium, when she was caught on camera.
“We were at the very back because we arrived late and I was taking a selfie with my closest friends. I remember thinking, “I can’t believe I’m in the Beginning right now.”
MetLife Stadium was an outdoor space large enough for an unlimited number of guests to safely attend. So Francisco invited his parents, grandparents and cousins. “It meant a lot to my cousins to be there,” she says. “They are five years old and as I am an only child, they are my brothers and sisters. I wanted to show them that the reason I’m not home is that I was here working hard, getting my degree so we could have a better life, so they could see that everything is possible.
Francisco grew up in Paterson and earned a degree in Family Science and Human Development. “I had three jobs each semester and I always volunteered, did service, was involved on campus.” She is taking a break this summer and travelling. “I want to take the time to know myself more and see what life is like without having this pressure of work and hustle and bustle. I will see the world, meet new people, discover what I love to do and reconnect with my passions.
Upon his return, Francisco has a job pending as a community advocate with a food justice nonprofit serving people experiencing poverty in Paterson. “I’m going back to where I was raised. I will work with the people I grew up with, empower them and serve them because I feel most connected to them.
Mekhi Rivers: the high bar
“I saw the camera as I was passing,” says Mekhi Rivers, “and I decided to pose, ‘Peace Out Montclair’. My mom, dad, and family were all there, shouting, cheering me on, and I was just giving God the glory when I saw the camera. Being a first generation student, a feeling of joy filled in me. I have a big family, so now a bar has been set, now it’s time for them to achieve excellence too.
Rivers grew up in Newark and earned a degree in family science and human development. He plans to continue his studies to obtain a master’s degree in leadership in higher education.
Dior Cleaves: finding purpose
Dior Cleaves, eyes glued to the stage, recalls this moment listening to the graduate student speaker speak on the theme of purpose: “The purpose is not a destination. Rather, it is a journey where your struggles can be transformed into power and joy,” Danielle McDonald said of the Class of 2022.
The speech resonated. “I was in the moment, paying close attention,” says Cleaves, the first male in his family to graduate. His mother, Ladrunda Gary, is an alumnus of Montclair and she motivated him to pursue a degree in sociology with minors in social work and business. “I’m definitely trying to find a way to find purpose – for myself and my family.”
Kevin Bernard: Inspired to Serve
“As I entered the stadium, my family was near the entrance and I heard my name. I turned to my right and there was my sister Kiana holding a giant sign, ‘Congrats Grad.’ It was a surprise for me and my family to celebrate the moment itself.
Bernard earned a degree in political science with minors in African studies and sociology. “What I remember most from the ceremony are remarks about returning to our communities. I’m from Newark and have a fixation on Newark, its history and its impact on me. I took the words to heart and the day after the ceremony, I went to City Hall looking for volunteer work. He is committed to working on civic engagement in the city, building financial literacy with student athletes, and encouraging voter registration.
Story by writer Marilyn Joyce Lehren. Photos by college photographer Mike Peters.
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