Schenectady County

Union Graduate College, Empire State graduates get degrees, advice

Paul Oreffice first stepped on American soil at age 17. He had little money and spoke little English

Paul Oreffice first stepped on American soil at age 17. He had little money and spoke little English.

Only in America could someone like Oreffice go on to become the chairman and CEO of one of the country’s largest industrial complexes. At least that’s how he sees it.

Oreffice, 84, told eager young adults his success story Saturday in a commencement address to Union Graduate College’s Class of 2011 at Proctors.

“Only in America, only in America could a person like me be standing here,” he said.

Because of its growing enrollment, the graduate school moved its ceremony for the first time to Schenectady’s historic arts facility, where an area favorite, the Schenectady Pipe Band, led a processional and recessional.

Oreffice, an Italian immigrant and former CEO of Dow Chemical — a company that addresses the need for clean water, renewable energy, conservation and agricultural productivity — offered 186 graduates words of wisdom on success in the workplace, and in life. Learn to listen, take risks that offer great rewards, know what you don’t know, be kind and understanding — especially if you’re a winner — and see problems as opportunity; such were some of the life lessons Oreffice relayed to the graduating class.

Humility is an especially important quality for today’s generation, he said.

“People tend to crow about all their accomplishments and talk about it and talk about it,” he said. “Be a graceful winner, and don’t forget there are two very important words in the English language: ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. They don’t cost anything, and they do a lot of good.”

College President Laura Schweitzer and Board of Trustees Chairman Thomas Hitchcock presented Oreffice with an honorary doctorate of humane letters. At the conclusion of his address, Oreffice told the graduates he was counting on them to keep America the greatest country in the world.

Student leader

The same young man who spearheaded a mission last year to help low-income Schenectady residents find preventive health care options delivered the student address to his peers.

Jonathan Wetzel, president of the Student Assembly, thanked his mother for urging him to “test the waters” at UGC.

The Niskayuna resident praised the school for its diversity of students and variety of perspectives from which to learn. Though enrolling there was not part of Wetzel’s “original strategic plan,” he said that while there, he learned the importance of adapting to new situations and challenges.

“Never has the ability to adapt, to be nimble on your feet, to fall down and get back up again, been more important than it is today,” Wetzel said. “Through the doors of this theater we’ll experience the push and pull of political controversy, a struggling economy and the effects of Mother Nature’s recent rampant earthquakes, floods, tornadoes and volcanoes. People are being challenged in ways that they never thought possible.”

Wetzel, who graduated Saturday with an master of business administration degree in health care management, will work at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Medical Center on Long Island beginning in July as a prestigious health care administration fellow.

Before school officials began the presentation of degrees to students from the school’s Center for Bioethics and Clinical Leadership, School of Education, School of Engineering and Computer Science and School of Management, Wetzel urged his classmates to always adapt. Reaching out to others and seeking different opinions is crucial to solving problems, he said.

“In short, never stop learning from each other,” he said. “Sure, it is a key ingredient to personal and professional success, but it is also our best chance for making this world a better place for ourselves, our children and for generations to come.”

Empire State

Two other area schools held graduation ceremonies Saturday. The State University of New York Empire State College’s Center for Distance Learning conferred 970 degrees at the Saratoga Springs City Center to candidates from all around the world.

The largest class in the center’s history heard from keynote speaker and honorary degree recipient Sir John Daniel, president and CEO of the Commonwealth of Learning, the world’s only intergovernmental organization that promotes distance education and open learning.

Daniel’s long list of accomplishments include a degree in metallurgy from Oxford and Paris universities, a part-time master’s degree in educational technology from Concordia University and various appointments to Canadian universities. He also served on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Also a published author, Daniel was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions to higher education. He holds 30 honorary doctorates from universities in 17 countries.

In the heart of the capital, meanwhile SUNY Empire State College’s Northeast Center recognized 248 degree candidates Saturday morning.

Keynote speaker Robert Congemi addressed the crowd in The Hart Theatre at The Egg in the Empire State Plaza. Congemi is a long-serving faculty mentor and author of three books of short stories.

Congemi, a Brooklyn native, describes his work as an interest in the attempts of people to bring meaning and beauty into their lives, as well as resistance to what they feel is an unacceptable fate, according to his website.

Three Empire State College graduate students from the Northeast Center were recognized with the first-ever Dean’s Medals, presented for outstanding graduate work. Each nominated student presented research to a faculty committee for review, with the committee forwarding recommendations to Dean Robert Clougherty.

Empire State College is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Established in 1971, the college offers associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees to adult learners through independent studies, online courses, seminars and residencies. More than 20,000 students attend at 35 locations across the state and online.

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