The Recorder – Northfield to celebrate ‘great ambassadors’ in Thomas Aquinas College’s first commencement

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NORTHFIELD — For the senior class at Thomas Aquinas College, this year’s commencement ceremony will mark the end of a four-year, cross-country experience. The class’ 32 seniors will be the first to graduate from the college’s Northfield campus, which opened its doors to students in August 2019.

“In a way, they’ve been seniors for three years,” said Patrick Gardner, associate dean for student affairs. “They’ve always had to set the tone.”

Thomas Aquinas College will mark the occasion on Saturday, May 21, with an 8:30 a.m. baccalaureate Mass, followed by the commencement ceremony at 11 a.m. Graduates, who will all receive a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, will be individually hooded and handed their diploma by speaker the Rev. Robert Joseph McManus, bishop of the Diocese of Worcester and a “great friend of the college,” according to Thomas Kaiser, dean of the New England campus.

“It’s all something familiar and it’s also something very new,” Director of Communications Chris Weinkopf said. Although the ceremony will be the first held in Northfield, its structure stems from 50 years of tradition at the college’s main campus in Santa Paula, California.

Although the senior class will be the first to graduate in Northfield, its members didn’t spend all four years here. Students transferred from the college’s California campus as sophomores and spent their final three years forging new traditions in Massachusetts.

“I mean, how many people have the opportunity to be a member of a first graduating class?” Kaiser asked.

Kaiser himself was a member of the Thomas Aquinas College Class of 1975, the first class to graduate from the college’s California campus. Inspired by a lecture on learning given by John Neumayr, one of the college’s founders, Kaiser enrolled in classes in 1971, and he’s since spent 40 years teaching at his alma mater.

“I never liked school so much as I enjoyed my four years at the college,” Kaiser said. “Teaching here is a reward in and of itself.”

Barbara “Bee” Jacque, vice chair of the Northfield Selectboard and chair of the Historical Commission, said the uncertainty over who would take over the former Northfield Mount Hermon School campus, after the school consolidated to Gill, almost deterred her from moving to Northfield nine years ago.

“I didn’t really want to live in a huge environment. I wanted to live in a small town,” Jacque said. “It just seemed so empty.

“It’s nice to have a neighbor who’s thoughtful and growing at a steady pace,” she continued. The college is set to expand its class sizes slowly, with a total enrollment of about 400 students possible over several years.

Jacque called the first commencement a “huge milestone.”

“I congratulate them,” she said.

Many students who transferred from the main campus in 2019, including senior Sarah Preciado, are California natives.

“I definitely did not like it at first,” Preciado said, adding that the campus grew on her as she adapted to the New England weather. “It’s a beautiful community.”

Senior Peter Duchow called his decision to move to Northfield a “pioneering opportunity,” a common theme expressed by students and administrators describing their journey to the Pioneer Valley.

After graduation, Thomas Aquinas College seniors plan to pursue a variety of career paths, including teaching, graduate school and the priesthood.

The seniors are “really a group of people that are very motivated, very outgoing, very eager to bring the college and its brand of education into this new region,” Weinkopf said. “I think they have been great ambassadors for us.”

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