The dress of the day for Manhattan College’s more than 750 undergrads was monastic as they filed into Draddy gymnasium on Friday, May 19, before turning their tassels to the left for their journey to the future.
During the school’s 181st commencement, students attached a cloth resembling a hood that dropped to their shoulders, like the monk’s cowl. Traditionally Manhattan College faculty and students have worn the cowl.
President Brother Daniel Gardner said his farewells to the Class of 2023.
“May you have the strength to make difficult decisions with kindness and honor,” Gardner said. “May you always remember where you came from and understand where you are going in this life. May you maintain the values throughout your lives that Manhattan College has helped you to develop.”
Celebrated chef Lidia Matticchio Bastianich took a step away from the kitchen to deliver the commencement speech. She was also awarded the Doctor of Humane Letters.
Bastianich is an Emmy award-winning television host, bestselling cookbook and author.
“I am a refugee. I came here in 1958. I was 12 years old,” she told The Riverdale Press.
The chef was born in Italy in 1947, but after the displacement of World War II, she can easily remember so vividly the aftermath and damage of the country and its people. They were still at war. She would overhear the adults talk about “who killed who.”
Parts of Italy, including her home of Pola, became communist Yugoslavia. She was under the communist regime and needed to flee. But during those time, she started to understand the comfort of food.
“Cooking is nurturing, it’s giving, and it’s my way of connecting,” she said.
Leaving behind some family members at the age of 9, she fled communist rule and went back to Italy with her mother, father, and older brother in 1956. For two years she lived in Risiera di San Sabba, a former concentration camp in Italy for asylum seekers.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees figured today there are 3.7 million refugee children out of school worldwide. More than half of the 7.1 million are school-age children.
A woman educator was looking for an assistant. And in return, Bastianich and her brother would be educated. Bastianich could have been another statistic of children who lost out on an education. But she got lucky.
The school was a Catholic convent — a community of monks, nuns, brothers, sisters, and priests.
Finally, the United States approved the sponsorship of Catholic Relief Services for her family to come to America. She left behind her grandparents again, including their farm in Busoler, which influenced her love for culinary aspirations.
They settled in Queens, and continued to cook because that was her passion.
“It gave me comfort,” Bastianich said. “The smell would bring me back to a special place where I came from.”
She completed her education and opened her first restaurant in 1971 called, Buonavia, which translates as good luck in Italian.
She opened additional restaurants and partnered with Eataly NYC and its restaurants in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, Dallas, Las Vegas, Toronto and Brazil.
Eventually, PBS offered Bastianich her first television series, “Lidia’s Italian Table.”
The show airs nationwide on public television and internationally on other digital platforms.
She is a big supporter of the United Nationals Association of the USA’s Adopt-A-Future Program in support of refugee education. She is on the board of Arrupe College — a higher education program founded by Loyola University of Chicago for underprivileged students.
The commencement “was diverse, like America — and it was wonderful to see. It warmed my heart to see these young people, most likely the first in their family to stand and make the next step into a reality of what America is,” Bastianich said.
That is what the American dream is for Bastianich.
Although not a first-generation college student, valedictorian Alixandria James, with a perfect 4.0 grade-point-average, graduated from the School of Education and Health, majoring in public health.
The valedictorian also did not miss one semester without being named to the dean’s list.
James wrote her commencement speech in a matter of two weeks. Here and there, she would write several paragraphs. Sometimes she would wake up in the middle of the night and write some of it.
“I wrote one speech and then ripped it up and then stuck to some of those paragraphs,” she said.
The alumni society also awarded James the Joseph J. Gunn Alumni Senior Medal.
Each year, beginning in 1983, the medal is awarded to an undergraduate who has made the most significant contributions to Manhattan College. According to the college, this is the year’s most prestigious award.
In February, she and 58 other students in the country were awarded the Harry S. Truman Scholarship award, the first in Manhattan College history.
James does not intend to enroll in a master’s program yet. She will begin a two-month public health internship program with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C.
She will be working with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in their Office of Prevention and Innovation, focusing on a lot of data analytic work.
James will work with the federal Office of Rural Health Policies for the remainder of the year.
“I always joke I would say public health is everything, but it really impacts the way we live, the things we eat, who we surround ourselves with,” James said. “And to me, public health is just a right. I’m really doing what we should all be entitled to, like I’m trying to do the work to make sure that we all have just certain rights. And I think health is one of those.”