When Denesha Lafontant ’23 woke up Sunday morning, the enormity of the moment that awaited her sunk in. After four years as a standout student-athlete at Union, the day had come to say goodbye.
For Lafontant, an interdepartmental sociology and biology student from Brockton, Mass., that meant no more lectures or events to drop in on to learn something new. It meant no more women’s volleyball or track and field meets, where she holds three school records in the indoor and outdoor triple jump as well as the outdoor long jump.
“Time has flown by super-fast,” said Lafontant, a dean’s list student. “It will be nice to take a step back, though. I was able to do so much in so little time. I am so happy I’m making my parents happy, and seeing them and my extended family smile is nice.”
Lafontant was among the 475 members of the Class of 2023 who were celebrated Sunday on Roger Hull Plaza during Union’s 229th commencement.
The featured speaker was Stanley Andrisse, an endocrinology researcher and assistant professor at the Howard University College of Medicine. A convicted felon, he is also founder and executive director of the non-profit Prison-to-Professionals (P2P), which seeks to change the lives of people with criminal convictions through advocacy, mentoring and policy.
Andrisse shared his remarkable journey of a young man growing up in Ferguson-Florissant, Mo., who made a series of bad decisions in his teens and early 20s that would eventually lead him to a conviction and 10-year state prison sentence for drug trafficking.
“The prosecutor painted this picture of me as this dangerous career criminal with no hope for change,” Andrisse told the class. “I internalized that and believed it.”
Buoyed by a mentor who saw a different narrative and trajectory for his life and inspired by his father’s devastating battle with Type 2 diabetes that eventually killed him, Andrisse began devouring scientific articles while in prison.
“It took me weeks to read through one article,” he said. “But I plowed through dozens, becoming a jailhouse expert on endocrinology. This enabled me to escape prison. Although my body was locked in a physical cell, my mind was freely roaming around the human cell. This helped me reshape the perspective of who I was.”
Before going off to prison, Andrisse had graduated from Lindenwood University. His mentor pushed him to continue his education, and upon his release from prison, and after numerous rejections, he was accepted to a doctoral program at Saint Louis University. He completed his Ph.D. in 2014 and went on to serve as a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University.
“Education was my game changer, and education is your game changer as well,” said Andrisse. “You have worked hard, sacrificed and persevered through challenging times to earn your degree.”
The author of “From Prison Cells to Ph.D.: It Is Never Too Late To Do Good,” Andrisse reminded the class of what comes next.
“First and foremost, never stop learning,” he said. “Your education doesn't end today; it's just beginning. Whether you continue your formal education or not, make a commitment to lifelong learning. Read books, attend seminars, travel, try new things and surround yourself with people who challenge and inspire you.”
He encouraged the class to use their talents, skills and education to make a positive impact on the world, be it volunteering in the community, working for a non-profit organization or starting their own social enterprise.
“Some people want to make money, and that’s OK,” he said. “For me, I want to make a difference. I want to make an impact. I want to make the world a better place. I encourage you to do the same.”
Andrisse received an honorary doctorate of science degree.
The College also awarded an honorary doctorate of letters degree to Arnold Weinstein, the Edna and Richard Salomon Distinguished Professor at Brown University, and the author, most recently, of “The Lives of Literature: Reading, Teaching, Knowing.”
Through his teaching and writing over the decades, Weinstein has made the case for literature – and art – as a way to access and share the entire range of human experience.
Judith Lewin, associate professor of English and chair of the English Department, and Bernhard Kuhn, associate professor of English, are former students of Weinstein. They nominated him for the honorary degree.
“Bernhard and Judy were exactly your age when I taught them,” said Weinstein in pre-recorded remarks. “And I, back then, was more or less exactly the age they are now. A time will come when you reach their age, and will still remember those Union professors who meant most to you. You may even do so, when you get to my age. This is not just memory; This is, rather, the actual life of teaching. It has legs. It is an afterlife. Graduation is called Commencement for good reason. You will be taking home with you much more than fits in your suitcase. Much of it will live in you your entire life.”
In a twist from tradition, Sophie Brown ‘23 and Melissa Murphy ‘23 chose to share student speaker duties. They talked about the bond they created when they arrived on campus and the differences between them, from their majors and activities to their food choices.
“We came to the realization that what you do does not define who you are,” said Murphy, a biomedical engineering major from Cranston, R.I. “Sophie and I are merely branches on the same tree. And what connects us is the environment in which we are rooted. We are both rooted in passion and compassion, in empathy and loyalty, in laughter and love, and rooted by the same tree that is Union College.”
The power of the Union connection was evident last spring when hundreds of students and alumni made the trek to East Hartford, Conn., to cheer on the men’s lacrosse team in the NCAA Division III National Championship game.
“People who graduated decades apart, who live in different cities and states, still feel drawn back to the place from which they stemmed,” said Brown, a visual arts major (with a dual concentration in art history and studio fine arts) from West Hartford, Conn.
“They did not show up to compete with personal accomplishments or chat about their extracurricular activities, but they showed up for the love created among friends and memories they have held onto.”
Seven members of the Class of 2023 received special recognition. A record six students shared the distinction of valedictorian: Matthew Beazoglou, a biology major from West Hartford, Conn.; Jing Chen, a computer science major from New York City; Shizhe Li, a dual economics and mathematics major from Beijing, China; Aidan O'Brien, an interdepartmental chemistry and psychology major from Rensselaer, N.Y.; Olivia Pachla, a neuroscience major from Marshfield, Mass.; and Karson Saunders, a dual English and sociology major from Rexford, N.Y.
Caitlin Boice '23 of Ellington, Conn., an interdepartmental major in English and Japanese with a minor in music, was recognized as the salutatorian.
In his charge to the graduates, President David R. Harris reminded them that they were the last class to be admitted to Union before the pandemic rattled the world.
“Yet you thrived,” Harris said. “Along the way, you learned that uncertainty is a part of life; it’s not something you can close your eyes and wish away. You embraced a defiant response to the pandemic and fought to achieve your goals in the face of unprecedented obstacles. Again and again, you said, ‘Nott today, Covid.’”
After crossing the stage at Commencement, each graduate was presented with a pin that said “Nott Today,” followed by a blank space to represent whatever challenges they may face. Harris encouraged the class to keep the pin handy as they move forward to the next part of their life journey.
“Let it serve as a physical reminder that you are strong, faced and overcame obstacles in the past, and that you can do so again, regardless of what emerges across the multiple tomorrows that await.”
Also at Commencement, Timothy Stablein, associate professor of sociology, was announced as the winner of the Stillman Prize for Faculty Excellence in Teaching. Donald Rodbell, the John and Jane Wold Professor of Geosciences, is the winner of the Stillman Prize for Faculty Excellence in Research. The prizes will be officially presented at Convocation in the fall.
The celebration opened with remarks from Kathleen LoGiudice, professor of biological sciences, who was performing her final duties as the College marshal. She is retiring after 21 years at Union. Julie Greifer Swidler ’79, the new chair of the College’s Board of Trustees, offered welcoming remarks.
Following “Ode to Old Union," led by Julia Borden ’26, the ceremony concluded with a performance of Pink’s “A Million Dreams,” by Arundhati Gore ’24.