A New Chapter Begins: The Story of SNHU’s Fall Class of 2023
With autumn cooling into winter and a production of “The Nutcracker” raising its curtain right around the block, downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, saw a flurry of extra activity on Saturday rather than snow. All weekend, blue and gold sprinkled the city as Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) recognized a new class of graduates at Fall 2023 Commencement.
At the heart of the excitement, the SNHU Arena welcomed students from 50 countries and every U.S. state and territory. In total, more than 25,000 visitors were in town to celebrate. A vibrant mosaic of scholars hailing from different cultures, backgrounds — and degree programs — packed the Elm Street area with their loved ones. But as the diverse class turns the page after this weekend’s ceremonies, they all have at least one thing in common. They’re not just ready to face the future — according to student speaker Brandon Patterson ’23, they’re ready to write it.
“See, that’s what makes a great story. The ups and downs, the unknowns,” Patterson said. “As I stand here today, I don’t just see classmates and fellow alumni. I see storytellers."
With more than 22,500 eligible graduates joining an alumni network of over 230,000, SNHU has been a chapter in a lot of remarkable stories — many of which are only beginning.
Success in Motion
Before each of Saturday’s three ceremonies, soon-to-be graduates flowed into the arena to find their seats, the atmosphere warm with anticipation. Atop their graduation gowns, many wore cords to represent their honors or culture. A number of the 2,572 military-affiliated learners in this class wore cords to honor their background, too. Some graduates also decorated their caps with unique and personal designs to commemorate the occasion.
Despite their different paths, campus and online students celebrated side by side. While the campus graduates attended classes right down the road from the arena, SNHU’s online learners completed their programs from across the state, country or world. But no matter where they started, each graduate ended up crossing the finish line with a degree in hand.
As SNHU President Dr. Paul LeBlanc addressed the crowd at the morning ceremony, he remarked on the many unique journeys that brought the day’s graduates to this accomplishment. He noted that some students came to SNHU fresh out of high school, others completed degrees as parents working full-time jobs and some earned their degrees while deployed. “Let me just give you a little bit of a sampling,” LeBlanc said.
He pointed to Robyn from Las Vegas, who drove a semi-truck and took her SNHU education with her across the country. “She worked on her assignments across 48 states,” he said. “And if that wasn’t enough, she’s the mother of eight, the grandmother of 33, great-grandmother of 12 and her goal is to become a lawyer and support survivors of abuse.”
He also recognized Josh, a graduating U.S. service member. “He finished his degree while deployed in the Middle East and did his deployment and his I.T. (Information Technology) program at the same time,” LeBlanc said.
LeBlanc expressed his pride for the diverse group of students and the hard work that led them to this celebration. “You have changed the narrative of your life,” he said to the class.
The day saw graduates at every level. LeBlanc and University Provost Lisa Marsh Ryerson awarded diplomas and led the ceremonies, which celebrated:
- More than 2,700 associate degrees
- More than 14,000 bachelor’s degrees
- More than 5,700 master’s degrees
- Eight doctoral degrees
This class of Penmen spanned in age from 14 to 85 years old. Six graduates were under 18 upon completing their degrees, and 97 graduates were over 65 years old.
Stories of Giant Slayers
While speaking of this group as storytellers, Patterson was graduating with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Graphic Design, Summa Cum Laude, meaning with highest honors. “We all have stories to tell. Some of pain and grief, and some of doubt and fear,” he said. “But this chapter — chapter November 18th, 2023 — this chapter is triumph.”
In his speech, Patterson dedicated his degree to his late aunt, who raised him throughout his childhood. “That belief she had in me was the reason I started,” he said. “It’s important to ask yourself this question: What was my reason for starting? Your reason helps define your story.”
Earning a BA in Psychology, Summa Cum Laude, Tiffany Lowe ’23 also discussed the value of each individual’s story during her speech. “Every single story in this room is worth being told,” she said. “As we step into the next chapter of our lives, let us carry this message with us – that we are all one-of-a-kind, and our stories have the power to inspire and change the world.”
Lowe had many realizations while earning her degree as a single mother, but most importantly, she discovered her self-worth. “I learned to stop measuring my value by the standards of others and started recognizing the greatness within myself,” she said.
Sakina Brown ’23G was a student speaker at the ceremony for master’s degree and doctoral degree graduates, and her journey to Commencement took her a long way from home. “From approximately 1,755 miles away, on the beautiful island of Jamaica, I found a new family — my SNHU family,” she said.
Brown earned her Master of Science (MS) in Business Analytics and spoke about the resilience and tenacity of this class. “We’ve vanquished this giant, and we will do so time and time again,” she said.
To watch the full speeches, visit the Fall 2023 Commencement playlist for recordings of each ceremony.
Virtual Reality, Real Achievement
SNHU’s virtual Commencement will take place on Dec. 9, featuring an immersive virtual reality technology that the university first debuted in 2022. The in-person events saw some preparation for the online ceremony as a robot standing in as a graduate crossed the stage.
Students and loved ones attending the virtual ceremony won't just be watching a video recording of the in-person proceedings. They’ll be immersed in a 360-degree virtual reality experience allowing them to enjoy the excitement of the SNHU Arena from home, wherever that might be.
Graduates registered for the virtual ceremony will hear their names called out and experience the crowd’s energy while crossing the stage to shake hands with LeBlanc. It’s another way SNHU has used technology to bridge gaps and enhance learning — all the way through graduation.
Into the World
At the end of each ceremony this weekend, a crowded arena full of family, friends, mentors — and plenty of graduates — rang out with applause. Flipping their tassels, SNHU students officially became SNHU alumni.
Filing out of the arena, they were met with more thunderous applause. While staff and faculty cheered them on from a clap line during the recessional, some graduates were visibly emotional.
A few SNHU employees were teary-eyed as well. Academic advisors, admissions counselors, student financial services representatives, IT staff, instructors, professors, deans and employees across all departments enthusiastically volunteer at every Commencement. To many, it’s like an extra holiday — and a reminder of why they do what they do.
The ceremonies also offer an opportunity for students and staff who have formed connections over the years to finally meet in person. For instance, Mellissa Honings ’23 traveled from New York to celebrate her bachelor’s in psychology — and meet her academic advisor, Becca James, after nearly three years of support.
The pair have become close through regular phone and email conversations, but this was the first time they were able to connect face to face.
“It’s like meeting your really good friend for the first time ever,” Honings said. “That’s really, truly how it feels.”
James echoed that sentiment and said it was wonderful to finally meet Honings after getting to know her so well over the years. “I’m just so, so proud of her and all that she’s accomplished,” James said.
As the festivities winded down, new alumni posed for pictures holding their diplomas, bouquets of flowers, or teddy bears clad in graduation caps. Many posed for photos with LeBlanc after the ceremonies, as well.
Even as the crowds dispersed, a sense of anticipation remained in the crisp air — and not just for those looking ahead to the holiday season. The future was beckoning, and these ceremonies marked the beginning of a chapter brimming with new possibilities.
Mars Girolimon ’21 ’23G is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University where they earned their bachelor’s and master’s, both in English and creative writing. In addition to their work in higher education, Girolimon’s short fiction is published in the North American Review, So It Goes by The Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library, X-R-A-Y and more. They’re currently writing their debut novel, which was Longlisted for The First Pages Prize. Connect with them on LinkedIn and X, formerly known as Twitter.
About Southern New Hampshire University
SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.
Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.