Michael Secreti, 22, shares highlights from his four years at Felician University in Lodi. The Paramus native was this year’s salutatorian.
Melanie Anzidei, NorthJersey.com.
Approximately 500 graduates received their degrees Saturday morning from the Catholic university, which celebrated its 75th year as an institution this year.
LODI — Hundreds of graduates walked the stage of Felician University’s Breslin Theater on Saturday, marking the end of their academic careers at the growing Bergen County institution and the beginning of a new chapter.
There was the class valedictorian, 22-year-old Arijana Jasarevic of Belleville, who finished at the top of her class despite migrating to the United States in 1995 to escape the Yugoslav wars.
There was also 22-year-old Michael Secreti, a Paramus native and this year’s salutatorian. While in school, he discovered a passion for helping others, and has plans to work in university student affairs in the future.
And then there’s 25-year-old Timmy Khammanyvong, who enrolled at two other schools before transferring to Felician, which is two blocks from his home in Lodi. He said he created “special bonds” with faculty and friends at the school, which showed as they all erupted in cheers as he crossed the stage for his diploma.
These three graduates are a small sample of the 503 students that received their degrees from the Catholic university, which celebrated its 75th year as an institution this year. Several hundred guests packed the theater’s auditorium to celebrate the graduates, who are now preparing for the next chapter in their lives.
“I always tell people that you have to take advantage of the opportunities offered to you – and that’s what I did at Felician,” said Secreti, who said the intimate setting the university offered blended well with his personality. “I was able to evolve into a leader, and some one that people can look up to.”
Secreti, who studied psychology, was recruited to the school to run track and cross country. Although it wasn’t his first choice, he admitted, “Looking back, I see this was the right place for me.”
Most graduates echoed a similar sentiment. The small size of this year’s graduating class – compared to the thousands that graduated from nearby schools like Fairleigh Dickinson and William Paterson universities in recent weeks – was a common reason students said they chose to attend the school.
Joseph Heissian, 22, of Lyndhurst, who majored in biology, said he transferred to the school from Seton Hall University for that reason. He said Felician was a better fit because of its small class sizes.
“My sister came here, and she had a great time,” he said, adding that while in school he met his girlfriend. “I’m just happy to be graduating.”
Heissian plans on becoming a physical therapist, and he eventually will be working towards his doctorate degree.
Though most graduates were relieved to receive their degrees, many like Heissian were prepared to embark on another academic journey, either at Felician or another out-of-state school.
Secreti said he plans to pursue his master’s degree at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. He said he would be open to maybe one day returning to Felician as an employee, should a position open up once he finishes school.
Khammanyvong said he eventually plans to find his way back into the classroom, but he would like to travel first.
“I need to see more of the world before I decide what I want to do,” he said. “I want to travel within the United States, and eventually I’ll probably come back to school.”
Jasarevic, who majored in business administration with a minor in computer science, is enrolled in a five-year Master of Business Administration program at Felician. She began taking classes towards her MBA this year.
“This is not a goodbye, it’s an ‘I’ll see you later,’” she said during her valedictorian speech. “By that I mean, I’ll see you next week because I’m finishing my master’s here.”
During her address, Jasarevic spoke about the adversity she and her family overcame when coming to this country. When they first migrated here, she said they did not speak English.
“My parents faced a lot of discrimination. We would be out somewhere and people would say, ‘Oh, these refugees!’ People actually said things like that to us,” she said. “When coming to a new country, you have to push yourself to be successful, and that’s what they did for me. It’s probably why I’m here today.”
This year’s commencement speaker, Marc Buoniconti, also spoke of the adversity he overcome after a life-altering sports injury.
In 1985, Buoniconti suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury while playing college football. He eventually pushed through, learning to move with a breath-controlled wheelchair and completing his bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Today, he is the co-founder and president of The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which has conducted breakthrough research in the field. He is also the president of The Buoniconti Fund, which has raised an estimated $500 million in funding for that cause.
On Saturday, Buoniconti received an honorary doctorate degree from the university. During his commencement address, he told students to be aware of “defining moments” in life and to do their best to learn from them, as well as push through.
“Your defining moment can come from a tragic, or happy event,” he said. “That we do not choose. But it is what you endeavor to make of this moment that defines your character.”
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