The Charger Blog

Class of 2021 Commencement Speakers Tout Importance of Justice and Resilience

As part of the University of New Haven’s afternoon Spring Commencement ceremony, Clarissa Lopez ’21 M.S. and Nyhsere Woodson ’21 addressed their fellow graduates and encouraged them to continue to apply what they have learned at the University in every aspect of their lives.

May 20, 2021

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

More than 1,600 members of the University’s Class of 2021 were awarded their degrees on Commencement Day.

When Clarissa Lopez ’21 M.S. began her time as a Charger, she became the first member of her family to pursue an advanced degree. She completed her master’s degree in national security in only eight months – while working full-time and completing an internship.

Clarissa Lopez ’21 M.S. spoke to her fellow graduates.

Lopez spoke to her fellow graduates as part of the University’s afternoon Spring Commencement ceremony, which included graduates of the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Sciences and the Pompea College of Business. Discussing the importance of fostering inclusion, she thanked University of New Haven President Steven Kaplan, Ph.D., for helping to cultivate a welcoming environment at the University.

“His acknowledgment and voicing of concerns for the ongoing challenges that different communities faced were not dismissed, but, rather, were discussed,” she said. “That is just one of the reasons I am proud to call myself a New Haven Charger. As I am officially part of the four percent of the Latinx community to receive a master’s degree, I am here to tell you I can’t wait to see that number grow.”

‘It was the absence of fear that empowered me’

More than 1,600 members of the University’s Class of 2021 were awarded their degrees on Commencement Day. Lopez was among the nearly 40 undergraduate and graduate students who applied to be one of the University’s Spring Commencement speakers. Sixteen of those students were selected to do a live audition via Zoom, and two students – one undergraduate and one graduate – were selected to speak at each ceremony.

Nyhsere Woodson ’21 spoke on behalf of the undergraduate student body.

Nyhsere Woodson ’21, who accepted his bachelor’s degree in finance, spoke on behalf of the undergraduate student body. Discussing the importance of learning to adapt and assimilate, Woodson shared the lessons he has learned during the many transitions he experienced throughout his life, including moving several times as well as attending three different high schools and two universities. He told his fellow graduates that he also learned what it took to follow his dreams.

"It was the absence of fear that empowered me to keep breathing because I soon found out that I had the strength that I was looking for,” he said. “Over the past year, we may have felt like it was difficult to breathe. We’ve had experiences that seemed tailored to take our breath away. In a blink of an eye, social isolation became the norm, and life became sponsored by Zoom. But yet we remain. We made it.”

‘I am here because of the work that I put into being here’

Acknowledging the challenges that his classmates faced during the pandemic, Woodson told his fellow graduates that it was their response to adversity that defines them. He encouraged them to use the skills they developed at the University to continue to thrive.

“Adversity breeds innovation, resilience, and greatness,” he said. “Our class has the opportunity to succeed beyond our wildest dreams because we have been through the trenches and came out victorious. Who do we become after this? It’s your story to write.”

Lopez also urged her classmates to reflect – specifically regarding the fight for justice. Concluding her speech with a poem titled “What is Justice?,” Lopez discussed the importance of advocating for justice in all areas of life – including policing, education, and healthcare.

“Justice is one where me standing here is not questioned or presumed that I am here due to my looks,” she said. “It’s recognition that I am here because of the work that I put into being here and that is why I have the privilege of delivering this speech today.”