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Inspiring Words Define Commencement Ceremonies

By Walter Villa, Special to STU

Three days, three ceremonies … and countless memories.

St. Thomas University celebrated hundreds of its newly graduated students last week. Bachelor’s degrees were awarded on Wednesday. Master’s degrees were awarded on Thursday, and Friday featured the graduates of STU’s Benjamin L. Crump College of Law.

STU President David A. Armstrong, J.D., highlighted numerous graduates throughout the week, including:

– Sofia Saldarriaga, formerly a student at the Miami Art Institute, faced the closure of that school on Sept. 30, 2023.

But then STU came to the rescue.

“Our faculty and staff swiftly welcomed her and seamlessly facilitated her enrollment into St. Thomas University’s Fashion Merchandising program,” President Armstrong said. “Thanks to her unwavering dedication, Sofia graduates with a Bachelor of Arts degree.

“Furthermore, she has been offered a job at Starboard Cruise Services, a testament to the fruitful collaboration between the company and our Fashion Merchandising program.”

– Reginald Beauliere, who earned a Bachelor’s degree in Sports Administration, played football during his time at STU.

In April, backed by recommendations from STU professors Laura Courtley-Todd and Dr. Robert Epling, Beauliere traveled to Detroit to work security for the NFL Draft.

After working 16 hours per day at the draft, Beauliere will begin his sports career in a Venue Management training program.

– Christian Pommels the undergraduate student speaker and the prestigious 2024 St. Thomas of Villanova award, spoke on Wednesday.

“Let us lift each other up,” Pommels said, “and celebrate our differences.”

– Rosanne Sherman won the St. Thomas More Award, which goes to the graduating law-school student who best exemplifies the characteristics of the Catholic faith.

– Neasha Prince won the Benjamin L. Crump College of Law Social Justice Award, which is granted to a graduating law-school student who demonstrates a passion for social justice.

– Mike Rizzo, the son of state Representative Alex Rizo, graduated from STU’s College of Law on Friday.

President Armstrong said Alex Rizo never told him his son was applying for law school at STU until after he had been admitted.

“He had to do it on his own,” Representative Rizo said of his son.

As it turns out, Mike Rizzo in 2022 was named the No. 1 best advocate in a state-wide mock-trial competition, won by STU.

“Well, Dad Rizo,” President Armstrong said with a chuckle, “your son has done it on his own.”

– Alexander Avila, who graduated from law school on Friday, has a fascinating back story.

Before law school, he served as a detective in the Homicide Investigations unit, reaching the rank of sergeant in 2017. Four years later, he enrolled in STU’s Benjamin L. Crump College of Law, and he passed the bar exam in February.

“I didn’t have the traditional path toward law school,” Avila said. “I had a 13-year career in law enforcement. I started a family – my wife and I have two sons ages five and six – and only then did I have the bright idea that I wanted to go to law school.

“Knowing I had to juggle being a full-time student with a full-time job while being a full-time husband and father, I never expected to be here at the top of my class.

“But I would work every night from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m., go home, sleep for an hour or two … only to return to St. Thomas University by 10 a.m. to attend classes and complete my assignments for the day. My days off from work were spent at the law library, at times until 4 a.m., studying for exams.

“I couldn’t have done this without my wife Karen, who worked full-time while raising our two sons essentially by herself. Our only time spent together were small conversations we had during breaks when I could Face-Time her and the kids.”

Avila said his words were not meant as boasts or complaints.

Rather, he wanted to pass along what he learned.

“Hard work pays off,” Avila said. “If God has a plan for you, the only one who can rob you of this plan is you.

“I was never the smartest person in the room. But I was dedicated to putting my best foot forward, rejecting mediocrity.”


Besides the highlighted graduates, there were several outstanding guest speakers, including:

– Famed attorney Benjamin L. Crump, the namesake of STU’s College of Law, spoke with his unique and authentic passion on Friday.

“You all represent the very best we have to offer the world for our future,” Attorney Crump told the law school graduates. “I have to squint because your future is so bright. You will accomplish important things.

“Never forget that this is your calling. Greatness is within you.”

– Attorney Ricky Patel, who was part of STU’s Class of 2009, was the Commencement Speaker for Friday’s graduation ceremony.

Mr. Patel, who was issued an honorary STU degree on Friday, told the graduates the compelling story of his difficult – but ultimately rewarding – journey as an attorney.

When nobody would hire him as a rookie attorney, Patel and a colleague started their own law firm. But with such little business – roughly $600 a month at first – Patel’s law career was almost over before it truly began.

In his speech on Friday, Patel recalled the day he received his STU degree.

“It was a major victory for my family because I was the first one to attend college,” Patel said. “Most of my life, I tried to hide the fact that my upbringing was so different than my peers.

“Nobody in my family grew up in a fancy neighborhood, drove nice cars or had a formal education. But they worked tirelessly so that my siblings and I could pursue our dreams in this incredible country.

“I remember when I graduated, I proudly sat with a huge smile on my face. But, inside, I could feel the pressure of what awaited me in the real world.

“The economy had collapsed. Nobody was hiring, and most law firms were letting attorneys go. Plus, I had $150,000 in student-loan debt.

“But I didn’t give up. I knew my ambition, perseverance and faith would get me to where I needed to be. (My colleague and I) knew we had to hustle because there wasn’t a safety net. We barely made enough to survive.”

Patel went on to monumental accomplishments as a lawyer, and he told the graduates on Friday that the foundation of his success started right here at St. Thomas University.

“You are on the precipice of greatness,” Patel told the graduates. “This school has set you up for success.”

To illustrate that point, Patel said he read of a school that experimented with growing trees indoors. The trees would grow to a certain height before collapsing.

“The scientists realized after some time that the thing that was missing was wind,” Patel said. “Wind causes stress to these trees. That leads to strengthening the roots of these trees.

“This made me think of the system we had in place at St. Thomas University. Other schools strive to create a comfortable environment for students and then expect them to survive the stress of the real world.

“But here at STU, we have a perfect system where students aren’t coddled. Nothing is given. Everything is earned. You enter this law school knowing you have to be good at everything to survive. We are the Navy Seals of law schools.”

Patel added that Friday’s graduates are now part of a proud legacy.

“We have all gone through the same experiences as you,” Patel said. “There is a bond we all share due to our St. Thomas roots. And if there’s one thing that I promise you is that we take care of our own.

“We know the caliber of attorneys St. Thomas Law creates.

“Now there is just one thing left for you. As you all know by now, we ruffled a lot of feathers for ranking No. 2 in the state for our bar passage (in 2023).

“Everyone is looking at us and asking, ‘Is St. Thomas the real deal or did they just get lucky?’

“I’m here to say that this class is ready to show the state and the rest of the country that we are the real deal. Mark my words: 2024 will be remembered as being the class with the highest bar passage in the state. When you do that, our alumni, our faculty, our students and our staff will forever remember this Class of 2024!”

– Ana Garcia, who has been Monsignor Pace’s principal since 2004, spoke on Wednesday.

Among other things, Armstrong praised Garcia for allowing STU’s athletic teams the use of Pace’s athletic fields, especially earlier in the President’s tenure when he inherited a university that was struggling financially at that time.

“I thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping us get to where we are today at St. Thomas University,” President Armstrong said.

In Mrs. Garcia’s speech that followed, she told the graduates that this day marked the culmination of years of hard work, dedication and perseverance.

“I’m reminded of the words of the great Tony Robbins,” Mrs. Garcia said. “The only impossible journey is the one you never begin.”

Ana Garcia, who received her Master’s degree from STU in 1988, also told last week’s graduates to never forget “the power of persistence, the power of resilience, the power of the human spirit and the power of prayer.”

Added Mrs. Garcia: “Remember that no dream is too big, no goal too ambitious, no obstacle too large. The only limits are the ones you place on yourself.”

– Dr. Jose L. Dotres, the superintendent of Miami Dade County Public Schools, was also a guest speaker as he was honored with an STU honorary degree. He already owns an STU doctorate degree in leadership, which he earned in 2020.

With over 40,000 employees and 350,000 students, Miami Dade County is home to the third largest school district in the nation, and Dr. Dotres is the chief executive officer.

“What you have achieved,” Dr. Dotres told STU’s graduates on Thursday, “is not a destination but a beginning of an evolving journey.

“Some would say that these are difficult, trying, controversial and challenging times. But it is in times like this that great individuals rise to the occasion.”

Dr. Dotres also talked about empathy, getting rid of fears and appearing as the best version of yourself.

He talked about a person transforming his or her life. And he talked about failing in his first two attempts to get his doctoral degree as he had to withdraw the first time due to the fragile health of his father and the second time due to the child he and his wife were expecting.

Finally, Dr. Dotres left STU’s graduates with one more message.

“Shock the world with your kindness,” he said.

– The Honorable Tarlika Nunez Navarro, completing her first year as the Dean of STU’s Benjamin L. Crump College of Law, surely connected with the graduates on Friday.

“It’s hard to believe that 15 years ago I was in your seat,” said Dean Navarro, an STU graduate. “I went on to accomplish my own dreams of becoming a circuit-court judge.

“I tell you this so that you understand that, from this moment forward, the possibilities are endless for you. Look around you because you are sitting amongst future leaders, judges, state representatives, Congressmen, Congresswomen, governors and much more.”

Friday’s graduates, Dean Navarro said, are about to embark on a noble profession as the protectors of our laws. Dean Navarro told the graduates to seek a life of significance and to not get caught up in society’s definition of success.

Dean Navarro also offered up several other pieces of advice.

“Be authentic to who you are,” she said. “Be courageous. To live a life of excellence, you have to take risks. I would not be standing here today if I did not take the risk to leave the judiciary. And, I can assure you, this has been the most rewarding year of my professional career.

“Obstacles are put in your path to see if what you really want is worth fighting for.”

Dean Navarro closed by quoting Muhammad Ali:

“The service you do for others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”

In total, STU celebrated 958 graduates over those three wonderful days last week.

Here’s a breakdown:

– Of the 319 students earning Bachelor’s degrees, they came from 38 different programs, and they combined to sport a 3.33 grade-point average. There were 158 student-athletes in that group, and they led the Bobcats to the best overall sports season in school history. In addition, there were 78 international students who earned Bachelor’s degrees, and they came from 27 different nations.

– Of the 347 students who earned Master’s degrees, they came from 35 different programs, and combined to sport a 3.70 GPA. Of that group, 29 are student-athletes. In addition, 39 are international students, and they come from 23 different nations.

– Of the 292 law-school graduates, 77 percent are students of color. The law-school graduates’ average age is 30, and 98 of them graduated with honors. There were 13 international students in this group, and they come from 11 different nations. Finally, they combined to contribute an incredible 21,351 pro-bono hours in service to our community.

All of that left President Armstrong proud beyond words.

Well, almost.

He did leave all the graduates with a final thought to ponder.

“For the past five years, I’ve given advice to the graduating students, and it’s usually three things,” President Armstrong said. “This year, it’s just one thing.

“Our students are taught in the Catholic intellectual tradition. That tradition dates back more than 1,000 years, and that tradition says that we will seek out all answers, no matter where it takes us, knowing that in the end, God is in the center.

“My advice is to always keep God in the center.”


Walter Villa

Author Walter Villa

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