After his introduction as a non-traditional student before addressing his fellow seniors at SUNY Purchase's commencement ceremony Friday, 29-year-old former hazmat material specialist in the U.S. Army Reserves Fernando Octavio Gonzalez took a moment and looked around the room.
"What is a traditional student at Purchase," he asked the crowd of several thousand people who came to see off 1,100 graduates at the school's 40th commencement ceremony.
Gonzalez's journey to delivering the senior class speech started in Florida, where he attended school at South Florida University, then to Iraq, where he served for two years, and eventually Japan, where he studied abroad while enrolled at Purchase. But considering only half of his fellow seniors were freshman at Purchase four years ago, Gonzalez is an example that the "traditional" student is becoming harder and harder to come by.
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Regardless of the path they took to getting there, Gonzalez looked out to the class of 2012 that includes students from 31 states and 12 countries and urged them to never stop pushing their way toward their dreams.
"If you fall, get up, brush yourself off and keep climbing," he said, calling their degrees at SUNY Purchase a springboard that will send them in the direction of whatever dreams they may hope to accomplish.
The graduating class received other bits of advice Friday, SUNY Purchase President Thomas Schwarz urged them to remember the importance of persistence, perseverance and integrity, telling them it's never enough to stand your ground if you don't have the integrity to do it for the right reasons.
New York State Senator Charles Schumer urged the class to stay involved with new technologies, reminding the graduates that their knowledge will give them a leg up on older generations.
In addition to the list of speakers, Purchase also awarded the President's Award for distinguished alumni to John Ambroseo and Ivan Menchell from the class of 1983. Ambroseo is president of Coherent, a California-based company specializing in creating and applying laser technologies. Ambroseo is the writer of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang".
Honorary degrees were awarded to Elizabeth J. McCormack, former President of Manhattanville College, and Aaron Benjamin Sorkin.
Sorkin, who wrote "The West Wing", shared with the class that they have plenty to accomplish and plenty of ways to make the world a better place.
"There's an exciting road ahead of you," he said. "There are things you can do every day to raise the human spirit, and they're not that hard to do."