SUNY Potsdam Celebrates Class of 2017 at Commencement

The State University of New York at Potsdam Awards Degrees to More Than 1,000 Graduates

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From left, Joshua Overrocker ’17, Anneliese Bishop ’17 and Jacqueline Herb ’17 look out over the Academic Quad before Commencement at SUNY Potsdam.

POTSDAM, NY (05/20/2017) (readMedia)-- More than a thousand students were recognized for earning their baccalaureate and graduate degrees at The State University of New York at Potsdam on Saturday, May 20.

The Class of 2017 became the first students to graduate in SUNY Potsdam's third century -- 201 years after the institution was first founded. It's a unique distinction, one that President Dr. Kristin G. Esterberg noted was par for the course for the senior class, many of whom had also been the first to do a number of things, such as traveling to Cuba through a new campus partnership or completing a degree in one of the College's newest majors.

"We are proud of all of you -- all who tried something new, who said 'yes' to opportunity, who are leaving Potsdam changed, a different person from the one who entered just a few years ago," Esterberg said. "As excited as I am to see what the future holds for Potsdam in our third century, I am even more excited to see what the future holds for you, our graduates."

To open the ceremony, Chelsea Sunday '16 recited the Ohen:ton Karikwatekhwen ("The words before all else") in the Mohawk language and in English translation. She was joined at the podium by her daughter, Mya, who just turned eight years old today -- sparking the crowd to spontaneously burst into a rendition of "Happy Birthday."

Wesley Clerge '17 and Fei Ma '17 led the crowd in the national anthems of Canada and the United States, respectively. Clerge was earning his bachelor's degree in music performance from The Crane School of Music, while Ma marked the completion of her master's degree in the field.

Alumni Association President Michael Paestella '95 welcomed the Class of 2017 into the ranks of 40,000 SUNY Potsdam alumni worldwide.

"When the first generations of alumni graduated from our alma mater, the Civil War had not yet been fought, women's suffrage hadn't been realized and our nation and our global community looked and acted very differently," Paestella said. "Our campus has changed, as has our nation and our global society. Alumni who came before you helped to make this happen, in both small and large ways."

Student Government Association President Sean Koloski '17 told his classmates that he had learned the importance of perseverance, the ability to ask for help when needed and of looking out for one another during his years at SUNY Potsdam.

"I just want to thank everyone here for all their hard work and dedication -- students dedicated to their academics and extracurricular activities; faculty, staff and administrators dedicated to providing a safe and stimulating learning environment for students, and the numerous families here today who have dedicated their lives to seeing their students succeed and live happily," Koloski said. "I will miss Potsdam, but I am eager to see what the future holds, not only for myself but for all of you."

SUNY Potsdam was proud to welcome State Senator Joseph Griffo as a special guest to present the College's 2017 Leadership Through Service Award. Sen. Griffo and Dr. Esterberg presented the award to Sam and Carmela Spagnolo, the proprietors of Sergi's Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria in Potsdam, in recognition of their many years of committed and dedicated service to the North Country.

"The Spagnolos, in one way or another, have been integral to the SUNY Potsdam student experience for decades. They have built a business that, after 50 years, has become an anchor for this community," Esterberg said. "Potsdam just wouldn't seem like Potsdam without Sergi's. The Spagnolos pride themselves on operating a business where everyone is welcomed like family."

Former Major League Baseball pitcher and Chicago Cubs broadcast analyst Jim Deshaies addressed the Class of 2017, including his daughter, Kelly, who graduated with her Bachelor of Arts degree in environmental studies. After taking a selfie with the crowd, Deshaies began his remarks by reminding the graduates of how far they have come.

"You have gone from 'Blue's Clues' to 'Orange is the New Black.' From PB&Js and juice boxes to Sergi's pizza and double mocha extra-hot Frappuccinos at the PAC Café," he said. "This is your time to move on from Potsdam to embrace the challenges that lie ahead. You are ready. ... In baseball, we refer to a player's time in the minor leagues as 'paying his dues.' You have paid your dues -- you're ready for the big leagues."

Deshaies told the class to keep their heads up, no matter how much the odds might seem stacked against them. He shared a story of when he first traveled to Houston, after being traded from the Yankees to the Astros. As he got in a cab, there was a newspaper sitting on the seat. In the sports section, there was an article predicting that the team had traded its most winning pitcher ever for "a couple chest hairs and a toe nail." Despite that kick to the ego, Deshaies kept going and helped the Astros win the division the next year.

The keynote speaker also gave just a few parting words of wisdom, advising graduates to read lots of books and newspapers and to stay civically engaged, while still making time to connect one-on-one with others.

"Find interesting people to hang out with, smart people who will challenge you. If you're the smartest person in the room, maybe you're in the wrong room," Deshaies said. "These are 'interesting' times we live in, to say the least. Don't be afraid. Be engaged, challenge authority and question the status quo. Vote, march -- heck, run for office."

The ceremony concluded with the conferring of 1,045 master's and bachelor's degrees, followed by the traditional singing of the "Alma Mater," led by graduating music performance major Kathleen Kane '17, accompanied by the Crane Commencement Band.

During Commencement, SUNY Potsdam recognizes all students who have either earned their degree or are eligible to graduate between December 2016 and December 2017.

To find out more about Commencement at SUNY Potsdam, visit

Founded in 1816, The State University of New York at Potsdam is one of America's first 50 colleges -- and the oldest institution within SUNY. Now in its third century, SUNY Potsdam is distinguished by a legacy of pioneering programs and educational excellence. The College currently enrolls approximately 4,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Home to the world-renowned Crane School of Music, SUNY Potsdam is known for its challenging liberal arts and sciences core, distinction in teacher training and culture of creativity. To learn more, visit