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Convocation 2021: A Bright Beginning to a New Academic Year

Students lead the Convocation 2021 procession

The start of a new academic year, observed by Convocation 2021 at Georgian Court on August 26, is a celebration of fresh beginnings and achievement. But what if our best plans and dreams for 2021–2022 are upended?

Sachiko Komagata, Ph.D., PT, the Convocation 2021 keynote speaker and faculty-chosen recipient of the Virginia Graham ’31 Award for Teaching Excellence, had some wise answers for about 300 students, faculty, family, and friends.

Dr. Komagata’s love of helping people was woven throughout her remarks, which were warmly received. An associate professor of integrative health and chair of the Department of Integrative Health and Exercise Science, she began by leading the audience in a relaxation breathing exercise.

Dr. Sachiko Komagata
Dr. Sachiko Komagata, recipient of the Virginia Graham ’31 Award for Teaching Excellence in May, delivered the Convocation 2021 keynote address.

“Visualize your breath nourishing your entire body, mind and spirit, and releasing all resistances and obstacles,” she counseled.

Life’s obstacles and misfortunes can actually be blessings in disguise, noted Dr. Komagata, providing examples from her own life growing up in Japan. Her father’s pre-diabetes kept him from being sent to the frontlines during World War II. Years later, she was not accepted into her first-choice college, instead attending a smaller school where she met her husband at a ballroom dance club. They’ve been married for 39 years—a fact that drew applause from the audience.

Dr. Komagata describes herself as a lifelong student, using summertime to learn something new, from juggling to a new musical instrument or this year’s topic, self care, for which she developed five personal core values and a mission statement. A firm believer that “there are no boring moments or boring lives,” she shared how, with deliberate actions over 10 to 15 years, she overcame mitral valve prolapse—a condition that typically requires surgery to resolve. Just as she’s experienced, Dr. Komagata believes the Georgian Court community can come through life’s obstacles—and often with amazing outcomes.

“The current pandemic may have caused significant challenges and restrictions, but we may gain something more significant in the future,” she said. “We just cannot predict everything. When you observe or experience an extraordinary phenomenon, enjoy it, and please share it with me.”

Students: GCU’s North Star

Dr. Komagata also shared what she’s learned about Virginia Graham, the Georgian Court alumna for whom the teaching award, supported by her family since 2002, honors. One of the 24-member Class of 1931, Ms. Graham was described as generous, interesting, and lovable, and deeply involved in about a dozen activities during her college years. She earned a bachelor’s degree in an era when that accomplishment was as rare as receiving a doctoral degree today.

Then and today, Georgian Court strives to provide academic excellence and an exceptional student experience.

“The two objectives are intricately linked,” said Joseph R. Marbach, Ph.D., president of Georgian Court University. “Students are the North Star that anchors our Strategic Compass, and the most important service we can provide to our students is offering them an excellent education, both inside and outside the classroom.” All this is done, he noted, in a rich Catholic tradition integrated with the Sisters of Mercy’s core values of respect, integrity, justice, service, and compassion.

The new students welcomed during Convocation 2021 are a diverse group who redefine what it means to be a college student: recent high school graduates, adults already in the workforce, and transfers from other colleges.

“You will learn online, in small groups, in flipped classrooms, and in high-tech labs,” said Dr. Marbach. “But most of all, you will learn from each other.”

This year’s new students received a gift during Convocation 2021: a booklet/journal, Joining the Mission: A Field Guide for Students. As Paul DaPonte, Ph.D., executive director for mission integration and special assistant to the president, explained, like any field guide, Joining the Mission points out aspects of the Georgian Court experience students will want to notice and reflect upon while at the university.

Recognizing Accomplishments at Convocation 2021

Returning GCU students and faculty were recognized during Convocation 2021 for outstanding classroom, leadership, and professional achievements. More than 30 students from GCU’s schools received honors, including Yasmin Amaro-Garcia, this year’s recipient of the prestigious St. Catherine Medal for Student Achievement. And, a new award was presented this year: Hannah Moran received the Early Educator Award by Lambda Chapter of the New Jersey State Organization of Delta Kappa Gamma Society International. (See a list of all student awards in the Convocation 2021 program.)

Hannah Moran and Marilyn Gonyo
Hannah Moran (left), recipient of the inaugural Early Educator Award, met with members of the Lambda Chapter of the New Jersey State Organization of the Delta Kappa Gamma Society International, including Marilyn Gonyo, chair of the Lambda Chapter Early Educator Award Committee and former GCU professor of education (right).

As Dr. Marbach said, GCU faculty are the chief stewards in ensuring and maintaining the university’s high academic standards. One example of their commitment to excellence: Last year, GCU faculty produced nearly 200 pieces of scholarly work and achievements including books, book chapters, journal articles, conference papers, and presentations. (Read more about GCU faculty’s accomplishments in Faculty Focus 2021.)

“Your Days as a Lion Have Just Begun”

Casey Stoya ’19 addressed new students at Convocation 2021.

During Convocation 2021, GCU’s new and transfer students were pinned, received their class flag, and recited the GCU Student Pledge. They also heard from someone who, not many years earlier, stood in their shoes: Casey Stoya ’19, who earned a bachelor’s degree in natural sciences, was recently named to the GCU Alumni Board of Directors, and works as a quality control lab technician at Medtronic.

As a transfer student from Brookdale Community College, Ms. Stoya says she was nervous at first on the GCU campus. That didn’t last long. Not only did a new career path become clear to her, “to my surprise and delight, the uniquely warm and welcoming environment at Georgian Court managed to bring me out of my long-protected shell.”

She encouraged students to become involved on campus, set the bar high for themselves and if there are setbacks, keep moving forward.

Every so often, she said, “Take a deep breath and look around. You are on such beautiful grounds and around so many brilliant and kind individuals. This is a place and legacy you will carry with you for a lifetime.”

To view more photos from the event, visit our Convocation 2021 photo album. Photos by Jim Connolly.

Story contributed by Sheila Noonan.

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About Georgian Court University

Georgian Court University is a leading regional university that provides a transformative education, preparing students for ethical leadership and service in the Catholic Mercy tradition. Founded in 1908 and sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, Georgian Court University is Central and South Jersey’s only Catholic university. The university has a strong liberal arts core and a historic special concern for women.

As a forward-thinking university that supports diversity and academic excellence, GCU is known for expanding possibility for more than 1,900 students of all faiths and backgrounds in 35+ undergraduate majors and 10+ graduate programs. The GCU Lions compete in 16 NCAA Division II sports in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC). In 2020, GCU was named a Best Value College by and a Best Bang for the Buck (Northeast) by Washington Monthly. High student retention and graduation rates make GCU a Top Performer on Social Mobility on U.S. News & World Reports rankings, and in 2024, GCU was named one of the best Online Master’s Colleges in New Jersey.

The main campus is in Lakewood, New Jersey, on the picturesque former George Jay Gould estate, a National Historic Landmark. Georgian Court, which is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, also serves students through its Center for Professional Studies, and at other locations, including GCU at Brookdale, and through multiple online degree and certificate programs.