“You are the change that is desperately needed in our nation today,” said Letitia James, addressing Hunter’s winter 2020 graduating class on January 23 in North Assembly Hall.
James, Attorney General of the State of New York, gave a passionate commencement speech. Praising the Hunter graduates, she declared that their scholarly intellect, professional skills, and moral fortitude are desperately needed in these perilous times, and charged them with rising to the urgent call of history.
Hunter President Jennifer J. Raab and four graduates presented the President’s Medal to James—the first woman of color to be elected to statewide office in New York—for her remarkable career in public service and her many achievements on behalf of her constituents.
Among the many other highlights of commencement were President Raab’s tributes to several of the graduating students who had overcome tremendous challenges to earn their degrees.
The challenges for Isamar Tamayo ‘20, for one, included her leukemia diagnosis as a sophomore in high school. The disease paralyzed her, robbing her of not only her mobility but also her speech. She recovered, but subsequently suffered multiple health setbacks. Yet nothing would keep her from enrolling at Hunter College and discovering her passion for helping children with disabilities. At the 220th commencement ceremony, President Raab reunited Tamayo with the Mount Sinai teacher and mentor who encouraged her to continue her studies—an emotional moment for everyone.
Kerry Albright ’20 faced his own challenges, starting even earlier in life. He was only nine months old when tragedy struck his home in the heart of West Virginia – a dam break resulting in one of the deadliest floods in U.S history. The flood that killed his mother and brother nearly killed him, too. Miraculously he survived, earning the title “Miracle Baby of the Buffalo Creek Flood.” Kerry sang a stunning rendition of the national anthem at the 220th commencement and graduated with a GPA of 3.8.
Mickael Georges ‘20, too, overcame extraordinary odds to graduate. His parents died young, and Mickael grew up with his beloved aunt—but in a dangerous, drug-ridden Brooklyn neighborhood. Struggling to avoid the street life, he nevertheless dropped out of school before turning his life around. While working as a driver for Access-A-Ride, he became inspired, ultimately succeeding in earning a master’s degree in social work at Hunter.
Qiyi Li ’20 faced her own challenges. When she was very young, her family moved from China to Mexico to pursue economic opportunity, but her family members were unfamiliar with the Spanish language and Mexican culture. She brought a dictionary to school with her every day, excelled in her studies, and became the family’s Spanish language expert. New problems led the family to leave Mexico and relocate in New York, where they started all over again. Pushing herself day and night, she mastered English—her fifth language—and enrolled at Hunter. She graduated with a GPA of 3.5, earning her four-year degree in economics, in just two years.
Each of these students, President Raab noted, is extraordinary.
Also honored was CUNY Trustee and Hunter Hall of Famer Sandra Wilkin ’79, the first recipient of the 150th Anniversary Alumni Achievement Award. This award will be presented to 150 honorees throughout the sesquicentennial year. A nursing student at Hunter who transitioned to a successful career in New York’s building industry, Wilkin founded a leading woman-owned construction company and serves as President of the Women Builders Council.
In the valedictory address, Tasnim Hussain ’20 said that, as a daughter of working-class immigrant parents, constantly navigating her identity “as a Bengali, an American, a Muslim, a woman, and a student,” she’d been empowered by the environment at Hunter—which she described as “this diverse community of ambitious, active, and outspoken individuals.” Hunter, she said, was a place where she could not only get the education she needed to be a professional educator, but also a place where she found it easy to be unapologetically herself.
“That is what I love most about Hunter,” she said.