New College of Florida to Celebrate 50th Commencement Ceremony


New College of Florida will award diplomas to an expected 180 members of the Class of 2016 in a sunset ceremony on the College’s historic Bayfront at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, May 20.

This will be the 50th graduation in New College’s history. Its first students graduated in 1967.

The keynote speaker will be Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a pioneer in the American civil rights movement and an award-winning journalist for The New York Times, PBS, NPR and CNN. She will receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.

This year’s graduating class includes two Fulbright award-winners, one of Florida’s nine Frost Scholars for 2016, a student who received a prestigious two-year research fellowship at the National Cancer Institute, and many other students headed to the nation’s top universities for graduate studies.

While New College is known as a liberal arts college, it is noteworthy that nearly 40 percent of this year’s graduating students majored in the sciences or mathematics – some of the areas commonly called “STEM” fields.

About Commencement Speaker Charlayne Hunter-Gault

In 1961, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes were the first two black students to enroll at University of Georgia.  Protestors taunted them and on their third night a mob smashed windows in Hunter’s dormitory. The school suspended Hunter and Holmes, saying it was for their safety. More than 300 faculty members signed a resolution supporting their return, and a court order mandated their reinstatement.

Her journalism career began after her graduation in 1963, with a job as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker. She became a staff writer for the magazine, then, after an academic fellowship, became a reporter and anchor for a Washington, D.C. television station.

In 1968, she went on to The New York Times, where she was a reporter for 10 years, then joined the MacNeil/Lehrer report on PBS. She left PBS in 1997 to join her husband, banker Ronald Gault, at his job in South Africa, and became NPR’s chief Africa correspondent. She was CNN’s South Africa bureau chief from 1999 to 2005. She was one of the first journalists to interview Nelson Mandela upon his release from a South African prison. During her journalism career, Hunter-Gault received two Emmys and two Peabody awards. She and her husband also are the founders of Passages, a South African wine label.

She has written two books, the memoir In My Place and To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement. The latter book was New College’s 2015 summer reading assignment for incoming freshmen. 

About some notable New College graduates

Nick Abboud, a math and theoretical physics major from Gainesville, has won a Frost Scholarship, which pays the full cost of a master’s degree at England’s famed University of Oxford. In high school, Abboud nearly failed his first physics course, but he said New College’s academic structure and small class sizes allowed him to excel in the field.

“The academic flexibility here has worked very well for me,” he said, allowing him to major in both math and physics, and offering small classes. “The independence given to me by New College really motivated me to take an interest in my studies. I’ve had the enormous privilege of being able to study what I want, and that has been empowering for me.”

Bradley Baker, a mathematics and philosophy major from Oviedo, received a Fulbright Research Award to study machine learning at the University of Hildesheim in Germany. At New College, Baker was an actor and comedian, captained the fencing team and interned at the Mind Research Network in New Mexico. His work there led to a paper on machine learning for a professional scientific conference.

New College’s flexible curriculum has allowed Baker to pair studies in seemingly disparate fields. “Mathematics, for me, works as a way to conceptualize the world. Philosophy, on the other hand, analyzes, questions and criticizes the way we think,” he said. “Philosophical questions underpin how we think about mathematics: what assumptions we make, how we think about the truth and how the sciences may interact with the world.”

After his Fulbright year, he plans graduate studies in machine learning and to possibly pursue a career in “big data” law and ethics.

Gerina Gjergji, an international studies and Spanish language major from Jacksonville, received a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship to Mexico. Gjergji was born in Greece and raised in Albania before moving to Florida, and has studied in Spain and Puerto Rico. That has given her a lifelong interest in migrations and the challenges immigrants face.

She said her personal experience will help her in her Fulbright work. “As an Albanian immigrant in the United States, I understand the challenges of learning a new language,” she said. “I will use my personal experience learning and teaching languages, as well as my academic background to share American culture and offer interactive English language exchange.”

During her Fulbright year, she will teach in a Mexican school. She plans to continue to study international migration and diasporic identities in Mexico, and then to continue her studies in graduate school.

Neal Lacey, a molecular and cellular biology major from Gulf Breeze, Fla., is the recipient of a Cancer Research Training Award from the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, near Washington, D.C. He will be working with Dr. Luca Gattinoni, whose research focuses on T-cell-based immunotherapies – essentially modifying and training some of the body’s own immune cells to recognize and destroy a specific cancer.

Lacey actually received offers from multiple labs at the NIH, but chose this one for its potential as a game-changer. “Luca’s research is incredible,” Lacey said. “People are racing to figure out ways to improve T-cell-based cancer immunotherapies. A number of the projects that Luca has offered me are high-risk, high-reward, and at this stage in my training, I can afford to take these risks.”

After his NCI program, Lacey plans to pursue a dual M.D./Ph.D program, allowing him to work as both a physician and research scientist.

About New College of Florida

New College of Florida is a national leader in the arts and sciences and is the State of Florida’s designated honors college for the liberal arts. Consistently ranked among the top public liberal arts colleges in America by U.S. News & World ReportForbes and The Princeton Review, New College attracts highly motivated, academically talented students from 38 states and 23 foreign countries. A higher proportion of New College students receive Fulbright awards than graduates from virtually all other colleges and universities.


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