FLORHAM PARK — Aneta Brzoza said life was tough when she came to America from Poland seven years ago. She lost her job, and an apartment, at one point the only thing that kept her from going home was lack of money for a plane ticket.S
he received a masters degree Saturday during the College of St. Elizabeth’s 105th commencement honoring 443 students, the school’s largest class ever, and told her story as one of two student speakers — her speech marked at some points by standing ovations and people wiping back tears.“So many of us have felt hopeless at some point in life,” Brzoza, who lives in Dover, said.
“But somehow, we managed to stay focused and be strong enough to make it.”
New Jersey Secretary of State Nina Mitchell Wells, of Livingston, was the commencement’s main speaker and received an honorary degree.
She told the graduates that they are living in exciting times. She asked them to “challenge the status quo” and to “make it better.”“We have a woman and an African American running for President of the United States,” she said. “ I hope that because of them, you feel empowered to accomplish anything and everything in today’s world.”
The ceremony began with the playing of bagpipes before graduating students entered a giant white tent where more than a dozen national flags represented some of their origins. They were young and old, and one woman was pregnant, saying she was scheduled to give birth the day after her graduation.
The 443 men and women graduates included 285 undergraduate students and 158 graduate students.
Carmela Resuma, who received a bachelor’s in mathematics and was chosen as the undergraduate Women’s College speaker, told her fellow graduates that they were her inspiration. She told them that as women and leaders, they have a responsibility “to continue to serve others and work towards establishing tangible and sustainable changes in all areas of our society.”
Bonnie J. Monte of Madison, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, and J. Martin Comey of Glen Ridge, a CPA and one-time trustee of the college, both received honorary degrees.Brzoza, who gave the adult student address, maintained a perfect 4.0 grade point average on her way to a Masters of Science degree with a concentration in organizational change management.
She said she came from Poland, where she lived in a coal mining town, in 1999 to follow her dream of acquiring an education in the U.S. “Of course, I was sad to leave my family back in Poland but at the same time, I was excited to be able to go to a country that I heard so much about from movies and stories and I knew the U.S. to be the land of opportunity,” she said.
She found that life wasn’t at all like it was in the movies. She said she lost a job as an au pair and lost her apartment. At one point, she said a man saw her crying on the street, and asked what was wrong. Angels came into her life, she said, helping her to put a roof over her head and allowing her to continue her education at the time at the County College of Morris.
She graduated from CCM in 2002.“I was actually taken in by 20 Mexicans living in a house together,” she said. “At first I thought, oh my God, I’m the only girl here, something’s going to happen to me. But they actually gave me a room and a bed, while they slept on the floor.”
She said that at one point she had three jobs, including working as a waitress in a diner where one of her customers started to cry.“I thought I brought the wrong food or maybe spilled something,” she said.
She was told she looked like the woman’s daughter, who had died.The woman and her husband later introduced Brzoza to a woman who worked at the College of St. Elizabeth’s. That woman helped Brzoza receive funding for college tuition at the school.“The only thing she asked for in return was a promise that one day I would aspire to do the same thing for someone else,” Brzoza said.
She has made good on that promise by helping others, developing a program in the Parsippany and Hanover school districts called American Martial Arts Kick Smart that teaches preschool children to have positive attitudes, to use self-control and be courteous.She told her fellow graduates that she is going to Poland to get married but will return to the U.S. where she intends to pursue a career in finance and accounting.
She told them that her father had flown from Poland to attend her graduation."Dad, I love you and thank you for believing in me, she said, and then addressed her father in Polish as some people in the audience cried.