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900 receive degrees at Eastern’s 134th Commencement Exercises

Published on May 14, 2024

900 receive degrees at Eastern’s 134th Commencement Exercises

Class of 2024 perseveres to graduation

Thousands of people filled the XL Center in Hartford on May 14 to celebrate nearly 900 Eastern Connecticut State University undergraduate students during the University’s annual graduation ceremony. The event was a momentous occasion for the newest graduates of Connecticut’s only public liberal arts university and marked the end of a journey that, for many, began four years ago during the outset of a global pandemic.  

"Congratulations, Class of 2024! We finally got the graduation we deserve," said Senior Class President Alexis Annan '24 in her commencement address, referring to their high school graduations in 2020 that were abruptly cancelled by the pandemic. 

Of the undergraduates who received their degrees at Eastern’s 134th Commencement Exercises, approximately 520 come from the School of Arts and Sciences and 370 from the School of Education and Professional Studies. Graduates represent nearly all of Connecticut’s 169 towns and come from 14 other states.  

The five most popular majors for the Class of 2024 include business administration, psychology, health sciences, communication and general studies. Other popular majors include biology, computer science, social work and criminology.   

Commencement speaker Jeff Benedict '91

This year’s keynote speaker was Jeffrey Benedict ’91, an Eastern graduate and #1 New York Times best-selling author and seasoned television/film producer. Benedict has written 17 nonfiction books and more than 100 articles and essays exploring a diverse range of topics. One of his latest books, "The Dynasty," has recently been adapted into an Apple TV+ docuseries about the New England Patriots. 

While Benedict majored in history with plans to become a teacher, he credits Eastern with developing his research skills and fostering his ability to relate to people — two essential skills required of writers, he said. Relatedly, he emphasized the importance of pitching yourself.

“All of you are going to have to convince other people to put their faith in you, to pay you, employ you, to give you a chance.”  

He told the story of how he got the book deal to write “The Dynasty” with the New England Patriots. “I wrote an old-fashioned letter to owner Robert Kraft ... Six months later I got a letter back and another chance to pitch myself.”  

After winning over Tom Brady, Benedict was granted full access to the team and the multiyear book project was underway. “Getting to know people and getting them to trust me is such an important part of my job,” he said, crediting Eastern for helping him to develop that skill. 

Benedict is proud of his blue-collar upbringing and the fact that he attended Eastern, "a small state school in Willimantic." He told the graduates to remain humble, but to aim high and to be persistent. “You can write to anybody,” he said. “There’s no reason you can’t say, ‘hey, give me a chance.’ Someone will.” 

President Elsa Núñez addresses graduates during her 18th and final undergraduate commencement ceremony. 

In her final commencement address, President Elsa Núñez, who is retiring this May after 18 years as president, emphasized the students' liberal arts backgrounds and bright futures.

“You have worked diligently and tirelessly, always guided by our faculty and with the ever-present influence of Eastern’s liberal arts values and educational approach .... You are among the ranks of liberally educated persons who will contribute to your chosen profession by thinking creatively, communicating clearly, working collaboratively and acting ethically.” 

Núñez assured students of the wise decision they’ve made to invest in their education, citing data by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that shows lower unemployment rates for people with bachelor’s degrees compared to those with just a high school diploma. She also noted a study by the Georgetown University Center of Education and the Workforce that valued a bachelor’s degree at $2.8 million over a lifetime on average.  

Núñez asserted that receiving a college education is essential for the preservation of democracy. “Throughout history, those who led by force always sought to discredit and silence the voices of the educated, for the educated pose the greatest threat to autocratic rule," she said. “You will be challenged by those who belittle your education because it minimizes their power to mislead and misinform.” 

In her charge to the Class of 2024, Núñez told graduates: “Use your Eastern education to do good, embrace the differences you find in others, create opportunity, stand against hate, lift each other higher.”  

Senior Class President Alexis Annan '24

Senior Class President Annan focused her remarks on the theme of perseverance. “Perseverance is about summoning the strength to keep going when the path ahead seems daunting and obstacles threaten to derail our dreams,” she said. “During our time at Eastern we have met academic demands, balanced multiple responsibilities and faced personal hardships that have challenged our journey. Despite everything, we refused to give up.”  

Annan continued, “Now as we embark on the next chapter of our lives, let us remember that success is not measured by the absence of challenges but by our ability to overcome them. Let us embrace challenges as opportunities for growth, knowing that with perseverance, anything is possible.”  

Terrence Cheng, chancellor of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities (CSCU), congratulated President Núñez on her tenure and shared advice with the graduates, telling them to stand up for their beliefs, to not be afraid of failure, and to recognize that they will face resistance from the status quo along their journeys.  

When the graduates face pushback in their future lives, Cheng said, “You have to ask yourself: Am I doing the right thing, the right way, and for the right reasons? If the answer is yes, then keep going because the integrity of your work and your character is going to shine through. When all is said and done, your integrity is all you really have. It’s what you will be remembered for.” 


Representing the governing body of the CSCU, Martin Guay of the Board of Regents for Higher Education commended the graduates. “Despite starting college during the global pandemic and facing many unique challenges, each of you has persevered, demonstrating your resilience, academic abilities and strength of character. But this is not the end of your journey, only a new beginning with endless possibilities and opportunities.” 

The Commencement Exercises kicked off with piano accompaniment by music lecturer David Ballena, followed by the processional with the Governor's Foot Guard and Eastern's World Percussion Ensemble. Graduates tossed a penny into a special fountain in keeping with the University's "Make a Wish" tradition, and graduate Grace Michalowski ’24 sang "America the Beautiful." 

Grand Marshal William Lugo presided over the ceremony; graduate Frida Nieto Gonzalez ’24 gave the invocation; Yaw Nsiah, chair of the Department of Health Sciences and Nursing, was recognized for receiving the 2024 Exemplary Service to Eastern Award; and graduates Billi Kozak ’24 and Kathryn Kubisek ’24 were recognized as this year's Henry Barnard Distinguished Student Award recipients, the highest student honored given by the CSCU. 

Written by Michael Rouleau

Categories: Academics