Graduation Commencement: CUNY SPS Class of 2019

Shontae Ferguson, receives her diploma while in labor at graduation
Shontae Ferguson, aided by fellow graduates, receives her certification while in labor. Photo by Milan Fredricks

Graduation commencement for the CUNY SPS Class of 2019 was one for the history books. Graduates from the SPS class of ’19 witnessed a circle of life moment when a very pregnant Shontae Ferguson-Pryce, went into labor as the ceremony began. Since Ms. Ferguson-Pryce was determined to walk on stage to receive her certificate as a childhood development associate, the order of distributing the diplomas was rearranged on the spot to accommodate Ms. Ferguson’s condition. The audience enthusiastically cheered for her as she walked the stage, aided by fellow students.  Directly after she received her certificate, EMT workers rushed her out of the building

9 months pregnant, and in labor, Shontae Ferguson proceeds with aides to get diploma at graduation
Aided by fellow graduates, 9 months pregnant and in labor, Shontae Ferguson-Pryce proceeds to receive her certification

Ms. Ferguson-Pryce gave birth at 3:20 AM on May 30, 2019, to a baby boy named King. King Pryce weighed 6lbs., 8oz. at birth. Both mom and baby are doing well. Ms. Ferguson-Pryce has an inspiring story to tell her son when he gets older.

According to events manager Heather Zeman, this was the largest graduating class at CUNY SPS so far. “Over 860 students applied to graduate as a member of the class of 2019. Since some students won’t finish until over the summer session, we won’t have a final definitive number until late August.” Almost 400 graduating students attended commencement exercises at David Geffen Hall in Lincoln Center on  May 29, 2019.

MC Alyse Zwick at graduation commencement
MC host, SPS alum Alyse Zwick

Although previous ceremonies were afternoon gatherings, this year, the graduation commencement was an evening event.  As yet another new approach, SPS alum Alyse Zwick, was master of ceremonies, instead of a faculty or administration member. Ms. Zwick is an Emmy nominated reporter for NY1, and graduated from SPS with a degree in communications.

The keynote speaker, Alison Stewart, also a journalist, felt offering advice to graduating students wasn’t in order “since we are all grown-ups,” Instead, she told a story about Dunbar High School. Dunbar was the first public high school for African American students. Ms. Stewart drew a parallel between Dunbar High and CUNY SPS because both schools were created “to fill a need.”  Both schools set out to educate an underserved population. 

Ms. Stewart explained that Dunbar’s motto came from a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the school’s namesake. Ms. Stewart shared the poem that included the school’s slogan, “Keep a Pluggin’ Away.”  The motto was central to Ms. Stewart’s message. As a woman of color who returned to work at age 52, Ms. Stewart spoke from first-hand experience about perseverance in the face of adversity.

Keynote speaker Alison Stewart at graduation commencement
Keynote speaker, journalist Alison Stewart
graduation student speaker Windy Nicely
Student speaker, Windy Nicely, BA Psychology

A Student Association committee chose Windy Nicely as the student speaker. Ms. Nicely gave an emotional speech about her struggles growing up in a household without a dad and with a mother who suffered from drug addiction. Ms. Nicely spoke of her time in institutions and living on the street as a homeless teen.  She told of how she turned her life around and ended up at SPS to pursue her degree in psychology. 

Ms. Nicely expressed gratitude to SPS, saying, “I wasn’t expected to split off from myself. I shared my struggles and the wisdom that came from being a single mother and a survivor.” Ms. Nicely further continued, “…my professors, classmates, and myself realized our shared humanity, and have become more real human beings as a result.” Today, Ms. Nicely works in the mental health field.

CUNY SPS graduation narratives are stories of strength in adversity. Commencement stories included a student who shared how she struggled to keep up with studies while undergoing brain surgery. Many moms talk about juggling caring for kids while completing research papers. And yet, with all these incredible stories of surmounting life’s difficulties, Sayashmini Madhow’s courage and grace stand out. Ms. Madhow worked at CUNY Queen’s College while studying for her Master’s in Business. Last year, just as Ms. Madhow finished her spring semester,  her veteran husband, who had PTSD, died from suicide.

Sayashmini Madhow and her husband at her undergraduate graduation
Sayashmini Madhow with her husband at her undergraduate commencement

Ms. Madhow was enrolled in summer classes. At first, she tried to attend classes. But then she realized she needed time to grieve. Her academic advisor, Tamara Colon helped her with disenrolling. Then, Ms. Colon ensured that Ms. Madhow got her tuition and fees refunded. With the help of her family and her work colleagues, Ms. Madhow healed.  “I remember my boss wiping away snot from my face as I cried.” Ms. Madhow was amazed at the outpouring of love and support. “My family worked in shifts. I was never alone. Someone was always checking to see if I was OK.”  

She went back to class in the fall and served on the Student Association. Although now she struggled more with time management, she learned “how to show up for myself.”  She worked hard and finished her Master’s degree in Business Management and Leadership. She sat on stage with the students who have contributed substantially to the SPS environment. She knows her husband would be proud.

Board of Trustee member Haris Khan
USS Chairperson and Board of Trustee member Haris Khan

Haris Khan, a recent graduate from CUNY City College with a degree in International Relations, took a class this past semester at SPS. As the Chairperson for USS, he holds a seat on the Board of Trustees. Since every commencement in the CUNY system has a trustee speak at commencement, Mr. Khan volunteered to speak at SPS.  

Mr. Khan shared his impressions of the SPS commencement with The Kiosk. “The commencement at SPS was the most incredible and inspirational ceremony held through CUNY. The students at SPS are truly the most dedicated, tenacious, and strong students. They balance academics with family and work.” Mr. Khan detailed further, “The challenges are far greater than the ones faced by the typical high school to college pipeline student. I won’t forget May 29th anytime soon. I wish I could stay for the entire event, but I had to leave early to break my fast.”

Heather Zeman told The Kiosk that the work already started for Spring ’20. She said planning commencement is a year-round task. Ms. Zeman also shared that soon SPS will outgrow David Geffen Hall. She concluded with, “For me, the greatest thing about Commencement is witnessing a moment of triumph and achievement in each of their stories. I know it goes quick, but I really do hope that every one of our graduates, whether they were at the ceremony or not, takes a moment to take a deep breath and acknowledge the work that they did and the goal that they achieved.

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