St. John’s touts 1,100 graduates in Jamaica

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As flashbulbs popped and people cheered Sunday, Henry and Fannie Barr of Jamaica patiently waited for the start of the St. John’s University commencement ceremony while keeping an eye out for their granddaughter, graduate Denetra Thompson.

“I feel great and so proud of her,” Fannie Barr said. “She won the golden key — magna cum laude. I am excited. I am on top of the world.”

Thompson was one of nearly 1,100 undergraduates who received diplomas Sunday afternoon before a packed house at SJU’s Alumni Hall.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who delivered the commencement address, applauded the achievements of the students at the St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, School of Education and the Peter J. Tobin College of Business. After receiving the university’s highest honor for a non-alumnus, the Gold Medal, Chao told the packed house about the important role St. John’s has played in her life.

She described how her family immigrated to the United States from Taiwan — settling in Queens — when she was 8. Her parents did not speak the language, know where to live or even have a car.

Because her father came to the United States without his educational transcript, she said, a number of well-known institutions would not admit him. St John’s was the only school that admitted him.

“He told the priest to give him a chance and he would make them proud,” Chao said. “I think that my father was a good bet. If St. John’s was not there for my father, I wouldn’t be here today.”

She told the graduates the education they received from St. John’s was “a key in their hands” that will open doors throughout their lives. She said they were entering into the work force, which is the “next step in the life learning process.”

Chao told the new graduates the global economy needs skilled workers as an educated work force. She said the “supply of educated women and men is shrinking while the demand is growing.”

The Republican labor secretary, who worked in the Reagan White House, was the chief executive officer of the United Way and the director of the Peace Corps, then talked up her former boss’s policies and ended the speech sounding as if she was campaigning for President George W. Bush.

“It was great,” said Karen Burkel, who graduated form the School of Education and will attend graduate school at St. John’s. “I am overwhelmed and it will take a while for it to all sink in.”

Regina Rivera, who graduated from St. John’s College and is from South Ozone Park, said she is ready to take the next step and head out into the labor market.

“No words can explain how I feel,” said her mom Sally, as her eyes welled up with tears. “This is a big step.”

Reach reporter Adam Kramer by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 157.

Updated 7:06 pm, October 10, 2011
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