Juan D. Paneto arrived at Union from the South Bronx in the fall of 1988, pushed by his single mother who stressed the importance of a college education to escape a cycle of poverty.
He left campus this past Sunday afternoon for the first time as a Union graduate, sharing the Commencement stage in an emotional moment with his son, Joshua, a member of the Class of 2021.
It was a remarkable 33-year journey that Paneto promised he would complete, but found interrupted by a career, family and distance.
“I always knew I wanted to finish my degree, but I had to take classes on campus and that just was not feasible,” he said. “I joked with my wife (Marisol ’94) that when I retired, we were moving back to Schenectady for six months so I could take the remaining classes I needed for my degree.”
When he came to Union, Paneto expected to graduate on time in the spring of 1992. When he discovered he did not have enough credits, he planned to return that fall to complete his courses. An internship with a bank in New York City arranged by an alumnus turned into a career in banking. He put his plan on hold.
As a first-year student, Paneto was enrolled in the Academic Opportunity Program, which admits students with great potential whose economic and academic situations might otherwise prevent them from going to college.
His mother, Ana, had raised Juan and his three siblings alone. Juan was an infant when his father, a tavern owner, was killed during a robbery. His mother made sure all of the Paneto children went to college.
While at Union, Juan met Marisol, a high school senior from Brooklyn who was visiting to learn more about the College.
For months, Juan would call Marisol’s mother to encourage her to enroll her daughter at Union. Marisol did choose Union, but for reasons other than Paneto’s persistence. However, he did not forget her. After returning from a term abroad in Spain, he shared his international experience in fall of 1991 with an audience that included Marisol.
She was sold on Spain, and by December of that year, on Paneto. When she went on her own term abroad to Spain in 1994, Paneto, now working full time, showed up to propose to her.
Together for nearly 30 years, he refers to her as his soulmate and best friend. They will celebrate their 24th wedding anniversary in September. In addition to Joshua, they are parents to Nicolas, 20, a rising junior at Middlebury College this fall; Elijah, 18, who will enter SUNY Maritime College this fall; and Ysabela, 16, entering her senior year of high school.
The Panetos were on a family vacation in 2019 when Juan revived his hopes of completing his Union degree. He read an article about a plan by the actor Anthony Anderson (star of “Black-ish”) to graduate from Howard University alongside his son, Nathan, in 2022. Anderson had dropped out of Howard in his younger years 15 credits short of a degree.
Juan reached out to Union. He was informed he needed five classes to complete his bachelor of arts degree as an interdepartmental major in Spanish and Asian studies. Told he would need to take at least two of the classes in person at Union, he was crestfallen.
As a vice president at TD Bank in Nanuet, N.Y., Paneto could not make the regular commute to Schenectady.
“At that point, I thought this dream was never going to happen,” he said.
Then in March 2020, the pandemic hit. Most colleges shifted to remote instruction. Joshua returned to the family’s home in New Hampton, N.Y. and Nicolas from Middlebury to complete their terms.
Once again, Juan reached out to Union, and in the fall of 2020, he took his first remote course, Literary Traditions in East Asia, with Megan Ferry, professor of Chinese and Asian studies. Days before Commencement, he completed his senior thesis, “People’s Republic of China: The Next World Power to Exploit Latin America,” under the guidance of Mark Dallas, associate professor of political science. He completed three other classes online at Orange County Community College.
Paneto said officials at his bank were supportive of his pursuit of a college degree. With a customer-facing glass office not offering much privacy, Paneto went to a friend’s nearby auto repair shop during his lunch break to take his classes via Zoom. He would often have to apologize for the sound of machinery in the background.
Ferry said Paneto made a positive difference in her class.
“Students really enjoyed working with him, appreciated his perspectives and experiences, and felt their learning was that much deeper because of the life and professional experiences he was able to share,” she said. “He also added a dimension of multilingual, cultural and generational diversity the students and I found to be the right catalyst for interesting and critical engagement. I am so glad Juan took the time and the challenge to finish his degree. He’s an incredible role model.”
At Commencement, father and son eagerly awaited to have their names called alphabetically to the stage. Joshua went first, and after he accepted congratulations from President David R. Harris, he waited for his father to follow. The two embraced.
“I couldn’t wait to give my father a hug and to congratulate him,” said Joshua, a double major in managerial economics and Spanish who has started an M.S./M.B.A. program at Northeastern University. “I couldn’t be prouder of him. I’m so glad we got to do this together.”
The day before Commencement, the Paneto family went to visit Juan’s mother, Ana, in nearby Middletown, N.Y. The 79-year-old woman noticed a huge ring on Juan’s finger.
“Did you get new jewelry?” she asked. Looking closer, she saw what it was: the Union class ring that she had bought for her son nearly three decades ago in anticipation of his graduation. It had been stashed in a drawer all these years.
Why was he wearing it now?
Ana was aware that Juan had resumed taking classes toward his degree, but she did not know that the next day, he would officially become a member of the Union College Class of 1992. He shared the news.
“It took you a long time,” she said, “but you finally did it.”