October 12, 2022

Thomas Edison Presents 2,098 Degrees; Graduates Continuing Diverse Careers

By Donald Gilpin

Thomas Edison State University (TESU) awarded 2,098 degrees to graduates with an average age of 37 at its 50th annual commencement ceremony at the CURE Insurance Arena in Trenton on October 1. The graduates came from 37 different states, all 21 counties of New Jersey, and from foreign countries including Chile, St. Lucia, and United Arab Emirates.

“The beauty of our graduating class is what makes our institution so unique,” said TESU President Merodie A. Hancock. “There is no trend in our graduating class other than the fact that everybody has a story. They all have some story, something they’ve come through to accomplish this.”

She continued, “There was a graduate who went through breast cancer as she was working on her degree, and someone else who was diagnosed with an untreatable disease but still finished their degree. We have a tremendous military population and a lot of folks are deployed, and somehow still figure it out. They are all so driven.”

Addressing the TESU graduates this year was Elizabeth “Bette” Ewing from the original Class of 1973, the first graduate to cross the stage at TESU’s first commencement on June 15, 1973. “As an adult student with a small child to care for, I was fortunate to find Thomas Edison — a school that had just been established and created to serve adults,” she told the graduates.

“This school that began 50 years ago still offers everything it did when I was a student — flexibility, access, and hope,” she said. “My degree gave me the confidence to pursue my dreams of becoming a teacher … a meaningful career that I will cherish forever.”

In speaking to the graduates in attendance, accompanied by more than 4,000 friends and family, Hancock pointed out, ”Your alma mater is named after someone who refused to quit. How fitting is that? Thomas Edison’s spirit of innovation and dogged pursuit of success is at the forefront of our university’s mission and in our actions every day. Some people may say I’m biased, but the proof is sitting in this arena, right in front of me. We have rocked it for 50 years and we have only just begun.”

TESU has awarded approximately 72,000 degrees to more than 64,923 graduates since it began providing undergraduate and graduate education for self-directed adults through flexible collegiate learning in 1972.

With most of its courses conducted online, it sought to improve access and respond to the needs of working adult students, recognizing that college-level learning could take place outside of classrooms. Hancock noted some of the challenges facing higher education in 2022 and the urgency of responding to the needs of working adults, as well as the needs of their employers and their communities.

“TESU is uniquely positioned to redefine the future of higher education for adults,” the TESU website states. “The celebration of TESU’s 50th anniversary provides an opportunity to envision a bright future and to begin fully realizing it.”

Hancock described the university’s “vision statement,” based on the overriding goal of student success. “It’s so direct and it really charts out where we’re going: building careers, advancing professions, empowering communities,” she said. “One of our goals is to help our graduates realize what a voice in the community and how being educated in a community helps to empower a community.”

She continued, “Because our students tend to be more mature and in more leadership roles we see them impacting their professions, not just building their careers. We see them helping to inform how health care is done, helping to inform education. They are leaving their marks on how their professions work in the future.”

In the pursuit of these ambitious goals, TESU is taking a close look at each course in the curriculum. “Obviously innovation is always a way to get there,” she said, “but it’s not just innovation with technology. It’s innovation with how we do our curriculum. We have started going through every course we have and saying ‘What is the clear relevant outcome in this course?’”

One of the 2022 graduates, Erin Rybicki, recipient of a Doctor of Business Administration (DBA) degree, chose TESU in 2018 for her doctoral degree after researching more than a dozen different programs. She described her experience as a TESU student, completing her requirements while serving as a full-time professor at Mercer County Community College (MCCC).

“Throughout my DBA studies, I worked with experienced doctoral-level mentors with a diverse range of expertise and professional experience,” she said. “Each mentor really challenged us in our studies and business research. We delved into each of the major areas of business, from finance and management to economics and global supply chain studies.”

Rybicki’s TESU education has served her well in her ongoing career at MCCC. “While I am already a full-time professor and not looking to change roles, I expanded my teaching scope into new business courses,” she said. “I also teach graduate school on the weekends, with a focus on MBA courses in business ethics, management, and business data analysis. The research and collaboration learning in the DBA program informs my teaching every day and has helped me to become a cross-disciplinary faculty member with a broader knowledge base to offer my students. I plan to continue my focus on teaching business courses and am currently working to develop a supply chain concentration within the business administration degree at Mercer.”

One of the speakers at the October 1 graduation ceremony, Rybicki is an enthusiastic proponent of the non-traditional education offered at TESU. “Every New Jerseyan should know about the amazing opportunities offered by TESU,” she said, referring to TESU as “a true jewel in higher education.” She continued, “TESU’s DBA program is a prime example of how the university provides adult learners like myself with fantastic opportunities to grow and develop their career at every stage of their professional journey.”

Another 2022 graduate, Altereek Stembridge, described going to TESU as “the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.” He received his master’s in information systems at the October 1 ceremony, having received his bachelor of science degree specializing in computer information systems from TESU in 2019. 

Stembridge, 43, has been working in information technology (IT), often in leadership roles, since 2000. After completing the requirements for his master’s degree in December 2021, Stembridge received an offer to lead his own IT team, a whole department at a major supply chain management company. He is now the director of technology for that organization, “leading an initiative to transform that company and all of their back-end systems,” he said. 

Married with a 19-year-old son, Stembridge described how TESU allowed him the flexibility he needed to complete his studies while keeping up with demands of work and family. “TESU afforded me the flexibility to be able to take courses based on my work load and my need to be available to my family and still pursue my own dream,” he said. “That’s why I love Thomas Edison. I was very ambitious with my master’s degree and also wanted to complete it quickly, and I was able to choose the course work that allowed me to do that.”

Stembridghe was not sure whether he would attend the graduation in person or not, but he’s glad he did. “It was very inspirational to see the doctorates graduate,” he said. “For me personally, that’s something I’m seriously considering doing.”