Aisha Sandoval will earn her bachelor’s degree from St. Joseph’s College next month and for her, like many graduates, it will embody more than the completion of academic coursework.
Sandoval, 26, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan, worked full time as she attended school, and met other challenges, including the announcement to her family that she is gay. She was gratified by her parents’ support, and went on to get married during her undergraduate years.
“It all comes down to this one day, and I can finally celebrate the fact that I was able to balance my personal life, my Army life and my college life,” said Sandoval, of Bethpage. “There are people who have helped me make this dream come true — and you really want everyone there with you.”
This year, however, St. Joseph’s College must limit to five the number of guest tickets that each of its 1,047 graduates can have. The Patchogue institution is among four Long Island college commencements displaced by renovations to the 16,000-seat Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Instead, the school will hold two separate ceremonies at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury, which has 2,800 seats.
Adelphi University in Garden City and Molloy College in Rockville Centre have moved their ceremonies to the 15,000-seat Nikon at Jones Beach Theater, while Nassau Community College will host its event on the Garden City campus’ quadrangle. In the coming weeks, these colleges will look ahead to 2017 and decide on whether to return to the Coliseum — expected to reopen in March, three months behind schedule.
Commencement planners said they are both excited and nervous about the venue change. Bringing their ceremonies to Jones Beach poses some questions about what to do in the event of inclement weather. At least one college — Molloy — ordered thousands of ponchos stamped with the school’s seal, as well as umbrellas and baseball hats, to give out to grads and their families.
For more than a decade, thousands of Long Island graduates traversed the stage at the cavernous Coliseum in Uniondale. While most were in their early 20s, the ceremonies often included a sizable population of what higher education experts call “nontraditional students,” such as military veterans, single and/or working parents, older students and those who had overcome adversity, poverty. Many were the first in their family to receive a college degree.
Year after year, entire rows of family members rose to their feet to cheer, some holding signs, as the name of their graduate was read. Beach balls bounced in the air above the graduating class as they sat in row upon row of folding chairs on the floor where the Islanders hockey team played, listening to speeches delivered by college presidents, notable alums, celebrities and, in a local tradition of sorts, Sen. Chuck Schumer.
“You can never quite be prepared for what’s going to happen when you’re planning an event that big,” said Mary Aldridge, who has chaired Adelphi’s commencement committee for the past 10 years. This year, 2,222 students will receive their degrees.
The ceremony requires nearly a year of planning, which usually ramps up in January. At the Coliseum, the event was predictable and smooth: There was always enough space, parking and wheelchair accessibility. Planners never had to worry about the rain or the hot sun, as they did when they hosted commencement on Adelphi’s campus in Garden City.
There also was a history to the venue that excited the native Long Islanders in the class, she said.
“Every year would be a nail-biter to see how well the Islanders are doing and if they were going to make the playoffs,” Aldridge said. “I wanted to be happy for them, but it created a lot of logistical uncertainty for us.”
Then there was the year Madonna used the Coliseum to rehearse for her worldwide tour just around graduation season and the stage was reconfigured to suit her needs.
“All we could think was ‘What will this mean for us,’ ” Aldridge said. (Luckily, working with the backdrop was not a problem and colleges had access to the concert-quality video screens.)
Bob Houlihan, vice president for student affairs at Molloy College, coordinates graduation for 10,000 to 11,000 people. He said the colleges generally want to keep their graduation ceremonies on the Island, but finding a venue large enough is challenging.
“If you go through four years of college, you should be able to invite as many people as you want to watch you walk across that stage,” Houlihan said. “It is also about showing the rest of the kids in the family what is possible for their future.”
Molloy’s ceremony, which includes 1,050 graduates this year, is for the undergraduates, master’s and doctoral students. Houlihan said part of what he enjoys about having one large ceremony is that undergraduates get to watch the PhD students’ hooding ceremony, something he hopes will inspire them to continue their academic studies.
Houlihan said the college hasn’t yet decided on whether to book the Coliseum for commencement in 2017. Officials at some of the colleges are unsure it will be an option.
Mandy Gutmann, spokeswoman for the Nassau Events Center, the firm that is renovating the Coliseum and is owned by the same company that manages the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, said, “The intent is to include community events, which includes graduations,” but none is booked so far.
For the colleges, there remains the possibility of bringing the ceremonies back to their campuses. Doing that would require strictly limiting the number of guests, holding multiple ceremonies to accommodate the graduates or setting aside places where people can watch a simulcast of the event.
Samuele Riva has four relatives and a family friend flying in from his small hometown in Italy next month to watch him receive his degree from Farmingdale State College.
The school will hold two ceremonies in Nold Hall Gymnasium — one in the morning for graduates of the School of Business and the School of Health Sciences, and the other in the afternoon for graduates of the School of Arts & Sciences and the School of Engineering Technology. Each graduate gets five tickets, which are free.
Riva, 22, of Varese, a city of about 80,000 some 40 minutes north of Milan, is getting a bachelor of science in sports management. He plans to start law school at Touro Law Center in the fall and go on to a career as an agent for athletes.
“No one in my family ever went to college,” said Varese, the son of a contractor and a secretary. “They invested in me and my dreams, and this is my way of giving back to my parents. To be there in front of them, walking on stage — it will really be a great moment.”