Last May, during his commencement address, Fulton-Montgomery Community College President Dustin Swanger mentioned what was then a divisive presidential campaign. He urged graduating students to use their educations to cut through the the political noise.
Without endorsing any candidate, Swanger prevailed upon the students to pay attention and participate in elections, and to see past the rhetoric that accompanies our political cycles.
His message this year to the 500-plus graduating students, and their families and friends, was much the same, but perhaps resonated a little more during these increasingly fraught political times.
“Our world is complicated. The issues and problems we face today have no simple answers,” said Swanger, to a standing-room-only crowd inside the school’s athletic complex. “True solutions are not offered in headlines, soundbites or slogans. They are formulated through discussion, data and diligence.”
Swanger said he wasn’t there to offer solutions on the myriad issues facing the country and the world.
“Rather, I’m advocating that you pay attention to them,” he said. “Use the education you gained and analytical skills you developed to explore these issues, to research the facts, and to not take anyone in public office, regardless of party, at face value.”
The event’s keynote speaker, Amsterdam-based Hill & Markes COO Jason Packer, picked up on the political vibe during his address. He said when Swanger first approached him about speaking at the commencement, he was told the school usually brings in a political figure.
“Well, I have to say ... you chose me over a politician, so I suppose expectations can’t be too high then,” joked Packer before settling into his speach.
He said millennials often get a bad rap from business speakers, pundits and writers. That, however, hasn’t been his experience.
“I have been and continue to work with the millennial generation and I must say I think the millennial generation is smart, hard-working, and good,” Packer said.
He urged the graduating students to think hard about where they will live, work and play in the coming years, and spent much of his speech touting the area’s strong community draw. Packer, 39, has lived in Taiwan and Washington, D.C., and said his return to the area to work at his family’s company was initially difficult.
“I was not very fond of my dad as a boss, I didn’t like knocking on doors and getting rejected every day as a sales rep, and I was not at all thrilled about being known as the boss’ son,” said Packer. “But my only salvation was my wife and the community. This area is amazing.”
He eventually found his footing, and was recently promoted to COO at Hill & Markes, which sells janitorial and food service supplies.
Packer touted the area’s proximity to New York City, Montreal, Boston and the Adirondacks, as well as the quality of the people who live in the Capital District and surrounding areas. He said he moved to Guilderland after living for years in Washington, D.C., so he could be part of a community.
“I’ve lived halfway around the world and in our nation’s capital, and there really is no place like home, there is no place like upstate New York, there is no place like the Capital Region, and today I want to tell you there is no place like Fulton and Montgomery counties,” said Packer.
Graduate Charlene Moreira spoke for FMCC’s class of 2017, and said she dreamed of the day she would graduate ever since she left her home country of Senegal in West Africa.
“I arrived at [FMCC] on a cold January day. The first time I walked down the path from student housing to the classroom building I almost cried because I had never felt so cold before,” she said. “And I was away from everyone I cherished and everything I knew. There was a language barrier and the culture was so different. I was afraid that I would never be able to adjust to this new country.”
But adjust she did, thrived even. In introducing her, Swanger revealed that Moreira was a resident assistant in student housing and became a member of Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society. She also participated in several campus clubs and acted in two theater productions with the school’s theater club.
She plans to pursue a journalism degree at Pace University on the way to achieving her dream of becoming a TV news anchor.
Moreira said she was challenged at FMCC in ways that have prepared her to face anything in life.
“I came here with a dream, and doubts that I would ever be able to fulfill this dream,” she said. “But I discovered that this dream was possible, and moreover, everything I needed to reach my goals I could learn here.”
She encouraged her fellow graduates to ask for help when they need it, as so many have helped her along the way.
“We worked hard over the past two years, and today is a day to celebrate what we have accomplished. But this day also means we are leaving the people at [FMCC] who have been there for us and who pushed us to become the people we are today: independent, bold, ambitious, stronger and better equipped to achieve our goals,” said Moreira. “And although we know not what awaits us, we should feel confident that we are prepared to succeed.”
As they do every year, the Schenectady Pipe Band led the procession of graduates out of the gymnasium to pursue the next chapter of their lives.