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A Time to Celebrate the Graduates: GCU’s 2021 Commencement

2020 Commencement Procession

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

On May 19-20, Georgian Court University (GCU) will hold Commencement 2021 exercises on its Lakewood campus for students from the classes of May 2021, December 2020, and August 2020.

Four ceremonies will allow an in-person experience for each graduate and limited guests, while observing New Jersey COVID-19 requirements for social distancing and masks. The ceremonies will be livestreamed, as will a virtual Baccalaureate Service on May 18.

“We will proudly and joyously celebrate the accomplishments of more than 650 graduates, nearly half of whom, at the undergraduate level, are the first in their families to complete a bachelor’s degree,” said Joseph R. Marbach, Ph.D., Georgian Court University president. “We are confident that whatever comes next, our graduates will have a strong academic foundation and a mindset for social justice consistent with our core values as a Mercy university.”

Honoring the Graduates

Alicia Cook '08
Alicia Cook ’08

The graduates represent 11 states, a territory, and eight countries, and range in age from 18 to 90. Marion Thomas, believed to be the oldest graduate in Georgian Court history, was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Studies last December, and plans to attend the May ceremony.

In addition, the university will award a posthumous degree to late GCU nursing student Britani Kramer, who would have graduated with the nearly 100 B.S.N. students who will get their degrees this month. The class includes several men, underscoring the continued growth of male nurses in the profession.

Judith Persichilli
Judith Persichilli, RN

Two speakers will address graduates, faculty, and guests: Alicia Cook ’08, best-selling poet, award-winning activist, and songwriter, during the Wednesday, May 19, morning ceremony; and Judith M. Persichilli, RN, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Health, at the May 19 afternoon ceremony.

Ms. Cook’s works include Stuff I’ve Been Feeling Lately, which was a Goodreads Choice Awards finalist. She dedicates much of her life to shedding light on how drug addiction impacts the mental health of families and is also a songwriter whose work has been recognized by American Songwriter Magazine. Her 2020 collection of poems, Sorry I Haven’t Texted You Back, continues to garner praise for its honest and unflinching look at mental health awareness. She is currently director of communications for the American Guild of Musical Artists.

Ms. Persichilli, a familiar presence at New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s coronavirus press briefings, began her state service in August 2019. Previously, she held executive positions at University Hospital in Newark; CHE Trinity Health; and St. Francis Medical Center in Trenton. Among numerous honors, she’s been inducted into the New Jersey State Nurses Association Hall of Honor and received the Richard J. Hughes Humanitarian Award. Ms. Persichilli co-founded the Catholic Foundation of Greater Philadelphia, and, among other distinguished academic achievements, holds an honorary Doctor of Health degree from GCU.

Additional Honors

Annie Hanna Cestra ’73
Annie Hanna Cestra ’73

Honorary degrees will be awarded on Thursday, May 20, to two people who are both outstanding in their chosen fields and in community service, who will also serve as Commencement speakers for their respective ceremonies:

Annie Hanna Cestra ’73, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Howard Hanna Real Estate Services, the nation’s largest family-owned and operated real estate firm, will receive a Doctor of Business Administration degree. An active and involved member of the Pittsburgh community, Ms. Cestra currently chairs the Board of the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh.

Marlene Laó-Collins
Marlene Laó-Collins

Marlene Laó-Collins, executive director of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Trenton, will receive a Doctor of Public Service degree. She was a co-founder and member of the Mercer County Hispanic Association and the Latina Women’s Council and currently serves as vice chair on Catholic Charities USA Board of Directors and on the board of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton.

In addition to academic degrees, other awards will be presented:

  • The Virginia Graham ’31 Award for Teaching Excellence, given to a faculty member, nominated by fellow faculty members, who demonstrates outstanding leadership, teaching, and mentoring skills and a strong commitment to inspiring and helping students.
  • The Academic Excellence Award, given to the senior with the highest grade point average for four years.
  • The Kingdon Gould Jr. Award, given to the graduating senior who, in the opinion of fellow classmates, contributed the most to the general welfare of Georgian Court University.

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 15 NCAA Division II sports in the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC). In 2020, GCU was named a Best Value College by Money.com 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.

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, GCU at Rowan College of South Jersey–Cumberland Campus, and through multiple online degree and certificate programs.