Stephen Sweeney took the lectern Friday morning, looked out at a sea of undergraduates dressed in the robes he had never gotten to wear, and addressed the university he had not attended but has had a continuing hand in shaping.
"This event is about much more than a diploma that you'll proudly display on a wall. It symbolizes the beginning of a new and exciting chapter for each of you. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't envy you," the New Jersey Senate president told the 2,195 students and 13,000 guests at Rowan University's undergraduate commencement ceremony in Glassboro.
"I never got the chance to sit where you are sitting. After graduating from Pennsauken High School, I went out and became an ironworker. Instead of sitting in a classroom, furthering my education, I was standing on top of buildings and bridges - and occasionally falling off of them, too."
Sweeney, a Democrat, has played a large role in higher education throughout the state, particularly for Rowan, in his home district of Gloucester County. He has been a driving force behind legislation including last year's higher education restructuring bill and the bond referendum that appropriated $750 million to New Jersey colleges.
As a result, Rowan is slated to receive $117 million in capital improvement funding, integrate the School of Osteopathic Medicine from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, partner with Rutgers-Camden on a new School of Health Sciences in Camden, and become the state's second comprehensive public research institution, which makes more federal, state, and private funding available.
Sweeney's role in pushing that legislation, setting Rowan up for large changes over the next 10 years, was a primary reason for inviting him to speak at graduation, said university spokesman Joe Cardona.
Using the Medicine and Health Education Restructuring Act as an example, Sweeney told students to affect change where they see a need for it rather than giving in to the status quo.
"Nothing happens unless you act, unless you have the courage and strength of mind and purpose to create the change you want to see. I have been in the Senate for over a decade, and twice before people had proposed restructuring our state universities. Twice before, it had failed," Sweeney said.
"And people who don't care enough to push for that change allow themselves to be stalled - they settle. And they allow themselves to be relegated to the sidelines while the status quo maintains control of the field."
Sweeney didn't stick to legislation in his speech. Standing on the school's University Green on a sunny, breezy day, he described how his daughter, Lauren, born in 1993 with Down syndrome, inspired him to run for public office in order to promote the rights of the disabled. He told the students to similarly find and pursue their passions.
"The point is: Be bold, question the status quo. Challenge those who say that things can't change, that the old ways are here to stay," Sweeney said. "Dare to create change for the better - and not just for your own benefit, but for the greater good of your community. Don't settle!"