Shaped by the upheaval of the 1960s and the "moral center and humanistic tradition'' of her alma mater, Sandra Rossi Kurtinitis, Ph.D., the president of the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC), has spent a career laying and building the foundation for a sector of higher education that now serves 13 million Americans.
"We (community colleges) are Democracy's colleges,'' Dr. Kurtinitis said during the 92nd annual spring commencement ceremony for undergraduate students at Misericordia University, "and our work resonates with the noble mission of those who educated me, the Sisters of Mercy: educating people for whom higher education is often not an option. I often say to my faculty and staff: If we do not serve these students, who will!"
A community college professional for more than 50 years, Dr. Kurtinitis compared during her keynote address the turmoil stirred by a controversial war in Vietnam to today's national political climate, labeling both eras in the nation's history to a "fertile verge" or a period of profound change.
Today, Facebook has introduced the danger of using technology without ethics, she said, while partisan news channels have given "oxygen to a climate of confusion, hate, bigotry, and fear.''
"We are a fifth of the way through the 21st century, and we have yet to create a mature code of digital ethics. There is something frightening about this but something heady and exciting as well,'' said the Wilkes-Barre native and coal miner's daughter. "Someone needs to press a Reset Button; I think that someone is you.
"... We need citizen soldiers, not to storm the barricades or take over city hall, but to bring sanity, intelligence and respect back into public discourse. ... I am suggesting that it is time we try a little 'misbehaving' to get things right.''
A self-described servant leader, the GAR High School graduate said it is imperative "to create a technologically literate, yet humane citizenry, able to thrive and not just survive in the world as a global village,'' before charging the graduates with creating such a society.
"Uncle Sam needs you, my friends,'' Dr. Kurtinitis said. "America needs leadership at every level. My own simple leadership philosophy is as simple as Robert Greenleaf's 'The Leader as Servant.' Titular power comes from above (Trustees or CEO); real power comes from below (the people served).''
Dr. Kurtinitis earned her undergraduate degree from Misericordia University and a Master of Arts from the University of Maryland. She earned her doctorate from George Washington University, Washington, D.C. Misericordia University presented Dr. Kurtinitis with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during the undergraduate commencement ceremony.
"We Misericordians are educated for a life of service; hence, we will stand tall as ordinary people destined to do extraordinary things,'' added Dr. Kurtinitis, the president of CCBC since 2005. "Although five decades separate this commencement from the one that launched me in 1965, this university has given each of us a gift; our job is to pay it forward.''
It did not take long for student speaker Tara Koskulitz of Hazleton to acknowledge that she has a tendency to overthink just about everything during her address at the undergraduate ceremony – including her fellow graduates' perception of how swiftly time went by during their time at Misericordia. "I've been spending a lot of time recently thinking about the four years I've spent at Misericordia University,'' Koskulitz, a mathematics major, said.
"In the time I've taken to reflect on everything, the one thing that has kept coming back to me is how much I feel like I've changed,'' she said, referring to her growth academically and personally.
In preparing her address for commencement, the daughter of Bernard and Jamie Koskulitz turned to the "only reputable source of true wisdom: "Thor: Ragnarok" (a Marvel superhero movie) to explain her time at Misericordia.
"There's a line near the end of the film where Thor is trying to save his home realm of Asgard where he decides that Asgard isn't a place; in reality, it is its people,'' said Koskulitz, who accepted a full teaching assistantship at Binghamton University beginning in the fall to pursue her Ph.D. in mathematics. "I believe this has been true of my experience at Misericordia. The people who make up Misericordia University really made my experience here so valuable.''
A nerd, by her own admission, Koskulitz said she was able to own her own "nerdiness,'' and was challenged by both faculty and students at Misericordia to get the most out of life, whether that's understanding a mathematical proof, learning more about her Catholic faith or exploring various layers in poetry, films and comic books.
"Misericordia University is really about its people, and I believe that thanks to those people we have each been given the foundation we need in order to go out to wherever we may be headed and continue to learn and grow,'' added Koskulitz, a Marian Catholic High School graduate.
Misericordia University commencement events included separate ceremonies for the graduate and undergraduate degree recipients. The Most Reverend Joseph C. Bambera, D.D., J.C.L., Bishop, Diocese of Scranton, delivered the Benediction for the undergraduate ceremony, while Monsignor John Bendik offered the Benediction at the graduate degree ceremony. Thomas J. Botzman, Ph.D., president of Misericordia University, welcomed graduates and their guests to both ceremonies.
The undergraduate degree ceremony acknowledged 330 students, while the graduate degree ceremony featured 122 students receiving their advanced degrees. Overall, the graduates hailed from 14 states, including Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
Mary Jo Leddy, Ph.D., the founder and director of the Romero House Community for Refugees in Toronto, Canada, founding editor of the former Catholic New Times, and senior fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto presented the keynote address at the graduate degree ceremony. The scholar, teacher, social activist and journalist addressed the importance of Misericordia providing students a well-rounded, rigorous education in 56 academic programs.
"Perhaps someday you will understand what all these studies were really for,'' she said before sharing the "aha moment'' that changed her perspective on the world and her own faith.
At the height of the cold war in 1983 between the West and the former Soviet Union, Dr. Leddy was traveling to Moscow as part of the Christian Initiative for Peace. Their initiative was sharing letters from thousands of children with leaders in Washington, D.C., and now in Moscow. During her flight to Moscow, the Soviets shot down a Korean jetliner – sparking a dangerous international crisis. With all air travel suspended into and out of the Soviet Union, Dr. Leddy got to work, meeting with an official peace group and a more independent, grass roots effort.
"These people were mostly academics who had lost their jobs because of their criticisms of their own government,'' said about the meeting with the grass roots members. "They were in great danger, as the blockade had cut them off from the human rights organizations that had protected them.''
Toward the end of the meeting, a frightened young woman asked Dr. Leddy had she ever been to Jerusalem. The young woman, Dr. Leddy said, was searching for hope. Dr. Leddy initially struggled for an answer before responding: "When you drive up to Jerusalem in the springtime, you can smell the orange blossoms everywhere.'' The young woman breathed deeply and smiled.
"I realized then that all those years of study, the travel, the conversations, the times of prayer had been summoned up on that one moment,'' Dr. Leddy said during her address. "My education meant all the difference in the world for a young woman a world away.''
Dr. Leddy added that at least once in every graduates' lives someone will turn to them and ask for a "reason to hope, a reason to believe, and then everything that you have learned, all that you have become in the process will be gathered up and given. Then you will know more fully the meaning and the purpose of the studies that you have completed.''
Dr. Leddy holds Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Education, Master of Arts and doctorate degrees from the University of Toronto. Her doctoral studies focused on philosophy of religion and political thought, with an emphasis on political philosopher Hannah Arendt's approach to the Holocaust.
"My hope for each one of you is that you will be rooted and grounded in a beloved country where you are at peace and in place,'' Dr. Leddy said. "This could be a neighborhood, a school, a team, a soup kitchen, a book club, a parish – wherever you know in the minds of your hearts that there is good news.
"I am fortunate to live in a beloved community, in a house with refugees, in a small middle class neighborhood in a large multicultural and metropolitan city. There we become, as the Irish saying goes, 'a shelter for each other.' There I can say that welcoming the stranger is a blessing.''
Misericordia University presented Dr. Leddy with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during the graduate commencement ceremony.